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In Memoriam | Billy McNeill

April 23, 2019 10:42 am Author: Red Matchday Team
In Memoriam | Billy McNeill


The very sad news that Billy McNeill had passed away late last night (Monday 22nd April 2019) was announced by his family and Celtic FC this morning. The Red Matchday team pay tribute to the former Aberdeen manager Billy McNeill.


Billy McNeill was one of the most well-known and respected figures in Scottish football history.

Billy enjoyed a distinguished career as a player and manager and served Scottish football with distinction over many years. A man of immense stature he was a born leader on and off the field.

During an 18 year spell as a player, he made 790 competitive appearances for Celtic and would return to manage the club.

Along with his legendary spell as leader of the Lisbon Lions at Celtic, McNeill also had an all but too brief spell as manager at Aberdeen in season 1977/78.

After finishing his playing career in 1975, McNeill moved into management and cut his teeth with Clyde before Aberdeen made a shock move for him after Ally MacLeod left Aberdeen to take up the Scotland manager’s role. Many observers were surprised that he was the first choice to replace MacLeod as he had yet to prove himself as a manager. While his reputation as a player and captain was unsurpassed, but many believed that taking on a big job like Aberdeen came too early in his coaching career.

However, Aberdeen took the view that a young emerging manager, keen to establish himself, was the ideal candidate. There would always be an element of risk, but the only real success as a manager at Pittodrie since the Dave Halliday era was a young Eddie Turnbull who had revolutionised the Pittodrie set up in the late 1960s. McNeill ticked all the Aberdeen boxes as a young manager with a burning desire to succeed – as did Alex Ferguson, who followed in his wake.

It is ironic that in his one and only season with the Dons, he took Aberdeen so near to success only to be thwarted by his great rivals from Ibrox. It all started so well in the opening game of the season when a new look Rangers came north with big money signing Davie Cooper making his debut. McNeill, mindful of his new role and the passion that went along with any Aberdeen – Rangers game, emerged from the tunnel resplendent in his red shirt as he took a bow in front of the capacity crowd. It was a clever move as it immediately brought widespread satisfaction from the Aberdeen support and raised the noise levels, clearly having an impact on the visitors.

Despite the hype surrounding the new Rangers side, they were sent packing in an impressive 3-1 win that had Pittodrie warming to their new manager who had got off to the best possible start. It soon became clear that the league would develop into a straight battle between Aberdeen and Rangers as the Glasgow club set the early pace.

Aberdeen welcomed Rangers back to Pittodrie for the second league meeting on Christmas Eve 1977 and McNeill had encouraged his side to attack Rangers as he was convinced that if his players got to their defence early, they would have a good day.

He was spot on in that assessment as Aberdeen hammered Rangers 4-0 to close the gap at the top. Aberdeen could have done with a helping hand from elsewhere that season, but Rangers rarely slipped up against any other side and by the time Aberdeen inflicted a 3-0 defeat on Rangers at Ibrox in March, there was still a narrow gap at the top.

Eventually, Aberdeen lost out in the last game of the season and further disappointment followed when they did not really turn up at Hampden for the Scottish Cup final and Rangers won 2-1. Aberdeen had beaten Rangers three times in the league that season, so went into the game with high hopes. On an extremely hot day at Hampden, tt was bitterly disappointing afternoon for Billy and the Dons and a sad way for his managerial spell at Pittodrie to end.

McNeill and his players were crestfallen and, not long after that final, his old club Celtic came calling as they were in need of their former captain to revive their fortunes.

Billy McNeill may only have been in charge at Pittodrie for a season, but he laid the foundations for further success with the signing of Steve Archibald and Gordon Strachan paving the way for Alex Ferguson to take over.

Archibald came to his attention as a part-time youngster with Clyde and the £20,000 fee paid by Aberdeen to the Shawfield side is one of the best transfer deals ever completed by the club – Craig Brown was the Clyde manager at that time. While Archibald’s signing was welcome, the deal that took Gordon Strachan to Pittodrie even topped that.

After the Dons were edged out by RWD Molenbeek in the UEFA Cup, McNeill had real concerns as to his team’s lack of creativity. In the domestic game it was less of an issue but on the European stage, it was clear that the Dons needed some guile and craft in the side. McNeill turned to Strachan, a young firebrand and tenacious player who was making his mark with Dundee in Division One. Aberdeen offloaded Jim Shirra along with £40,000 to take Strachan to Pittodrie. It was too late for Europe but it was clear that in the young midfielder Aberdeen had a player of huge potential. On reflection, the signing of Strachan was a significant event in Aberdeen FC history as the ‘wee man’ went on to play a starring role in the successes of the 1980s, both at home and abroad.

And he also signed a young midfielder by the name Neil Simpson. Neil was given a professional contract and was one of several very promising youngsters who were about to have a major impact on the side.

McNeill, who stayed in the Stonehaven area, openly admitted that he and his family loved life in the north east and that he regretted having to leave Aberdeen after only one season, but understandably the lure of Celtic was too strong. McNeill and Aberdeen both went on to enjoy future success, the Dons entering their golden era under Alex Ferguson.

No one should ever forget the contribution Billy made to Aberdeen.

Billy was an absolute gentleman and one of the nicest guys you could meet in football.

In 2003 he took part in an event to mark the century of AFC and recalled how much he enjoyed his spell at Pittodrie. In more recent years he would go out of his way to make the Aberdeen staff and directors feel welcome at Parkhead when the Dons faced Celtic in Glasgow.

He is someone who will always be regarded in the highest esteem at Pittodrie and across Scottish football.

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