Tributes have poured in for Celtic’s European Cup-winning captain and former manager Billy McNeill following his death at the age of 79.
As the leader of Jock Stein’s famed Lisbon Lions, he became the first British player to ever hoist aloft the ‘trophy with the big ears’ as he called it after the Hoops’ victory over Inter Milan in May 1967.
McNeill also had two spells as boss at Parkhead and Celtic marked the importance of his place in the club’s history books when in 2015 they erected a statue outside the stadium of him holding the European Cup.
His death was announced in a statement released by his wife Liz and their five children.
Current Hoops boss Neil Lennon led the tributes, saying: “This is such sad news and I want to send thoughts and prayers to Liz and all the family from myself and all the backroom staff here at the club.
“When you think of Celtic and our incredible history, Billy McNeill is always one of the first names that comes to mind.
“He was our greatest ever captain and one of our greatest ever players, and along with his team-mates, achieved historic things for Celtic in the 1960s and ’70s.
“I love Billy’s statue, which is the first thing you see whenever you walk up The Celtic Way. It’s the perfect image of him, holding aloft the European Cup, and it will remind future generations of supporters of what a great Celtic man he was.”
Signed from junior outfit Blantyre Victoria in 1957, he saw out his entire senior career at Celtic Park – playing every minute of his 790 appearances.
As well as claiming his place in Celtic folklore with his part in the club’s famous win at the Estadio Nacional in Lisbon, McNeill – who was capped 29 times by Scotland – helped guide the Hoops to nine straight league titles in a row, seven Scottish Cups and six League Cups.
But after hanging up his boots aged 35, he was lured back to Celtic Park three years later, replacing Stein as boss following brief stints in charge at Clyde and Aberdeen.
He made a successful return to Glasgow’s east end, winning three League Championships, a Scottish Cup and a League Cup.
Stints at Manchester City and Aston Villa were not so fruitful but he returned to Parkhead in time for Celtic’s centenary year in 1987/88, ensuring the celebrations ended with a bang as the Hoops claimed a league and cup double.
Two years ago McNeill’s family announced he had been diagnosed with dementia.
Their statement announcing his death said: “It is with great sadness that we announce the death of our father Billy McNeill.
“He passed away late last night (Monday, April 22) surrounded by his family and loved ones. He suffered from dementia for a number of years and fought bravely to the end, showing the strength and fortitude he always has done throughout his life.
“While this is a very sad time for all the family and we know our privacy will be respected, our father always made time for the supporters so please tell his stories, sing his songs and help us celebrate his life.”
While McNeill had been ill for some time, the news still came as a shock to his fellow Lisbon Lion Bertie Auld, who told Press Association Sport: “Today’s news is a tragedy.
“I was there when the boss signed Billy at 17 years of age and even then he had tremendous presence about him.
“He was a big thin boy with spindly legs but he was majestic in the air, even at that age. He had a tremendous temperament for a centre-back.
“As the months went on, you could see he had this ability to be a leader. Despite being so young, he would give everybody his opinion and everyone respected him.
“I remember in Lisbon, him carrying the ball out onto the park in Portugal. His chest was out and his head was back. He knew we would win and that filtered through the rest of us. He was never arrogant or egotistical. He just believed in himself and the rest of us.”
Former Rangers captain John Greig was McNeill’s rival during their playing days but also a friend.
He told Press Association Sport: “It’s very sad news. I’ve lost a very good friend today.
“We have been close for many, many years. Although we were big opponents on the field we had a mutual respect for each other off it.
“As Old Firm captains, we were asked to do a lot of public engagements together. We were even given doctorates from the University of Glasgow on the same day in 2008.
“Apart from being a great football player and a great captain for a great Celtic side, he was also a great guy, a real gentleman and I’ll miss him.”