Billy McNeill: Legendary Celtic captain and manager dies aged 79

Billy McNeill: Legendary Celtic captain and manager dies aged 79

TRIBUTES are pouring in for legendary former Celtic captain and manager Billy McNeill after his death at the age of 79.

McNeill became the first player from any of the Home Nations to lift the European Cup in 1967 after he led the Glaswegian giants to a historic 2-1 victory over Inter Milan in Lisbon, Portugal.

The ex-defender is the fifth Lisbon Lion icon to have passed after Bobby Murdoch, Ronnie Simpson, Jimmy 'Jinky' Johnstone and Tommy Gemmell – who scored Celtic's first goal in the final.

McNeill – capped 29 times by Scotland – also captained the Bhoys to nine successive titles, seven Scottish Cups and six League Cups before hanging up his boots in 1975.

In two spells as Celtic boss – from 1978 to 1983, and 1987 to 1991 – he won four titles and four cups, while he also had spells in charge of Manchester City and Aston Villa in England.

The man labelled Cesar by his adoring fans was immortalised in 2015 when the Hoops unveiled a bronze statue of him outside Celtic Park.

He had been suffering from dementia since 2010 and was unable to speak during his long battle with the disease in his final years.

Celtic said that McNeill "passed away surrounded by his family and loved ones".

A legend remembered

In a statement on Tuesday morning, the McNeill family said: "It is with great sadness that we announce the death of our father Billy McNeill.

"He passed away late last night 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.

"We would also like to note our love and appreciation to our mother, Liz, for the care, devotion and love she gave to our father throughout his illness. No one could have done any more.

"Whilst 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."

Celtic themselves posted on Twitter: "The #CelticFC Family is mourning the death of Billy McNeill, the club’s greatest ever captain and one of the finest men to have played and managed the Hoops, who has passed away at the age of 79.

"Rest in peace, Cesar. You’ll Never Walk Alone."

Former Celtic striker Chris Sutton also took to Twitter, writing: "Such heartbreaking news. Billy McNeill was an inspirational leader, a legend and a lion. Thoughts go out to his family and the Celtic family".

Another of the club's former strikers, John Hartson, posted a video tribute to McNeill.

In a tweet, he added: "Sad news the Great Billy McNeill has passed away.. a true Giant of the game, Leader and inspirational figure.. RIP Big Man thoughts are with the McNeill family at this sad time".

Liverpool FC star Virgil van Dijk, who played for Celtic before moving south of the border last year, also paid tribute on Twitter with a prayer emoji.

Hail, Cesar

Born in Bellshill, North Lanarkshire on March 2 1940, McNeill joined Celtic from junior side Blantyre Victoria and made his debut on August 23 1958.

Over 800 appearances later, a Scottish Cup final win against Airdrie on May 3 1975 was the imposing centre-back's farewell game.

Among his many career highs was scoring the winner in the 1965 Scottish Cup final, ending an eight-year trophy drought for Celtic. He also found the net in the 1969 and 1972 finals.

The European Cup final of 1967 was the pinnacle – coming in the same season Celtic won a domestic treble – but he was on the losing side three years later when Feyenoord beat Celtic in Milan after extra-time.

He was capped 29 times for Scotland, scoring three goals before his international retirement in 1972.

McNeill briefly took charge of Clyde and Aberdeen before returning to Celtic as manager in 1978 to succeed Jock Stein – under whom he enjoyed so much success as a player.

His first season concluded with unforgettable scenes as Celtic's 10-men came from behind to beat bitter rivals Rangers on the final day of the campaign to win the title.

McNeill left for City in 1983, securing promotion to the English top flight in his second year, before joining Aston Villa in September 1986, with both sides ending up relegated that season.

His second spell as Celtic boss began impressively as he delivered a league and Scottish Cup double in the club's centenary season, 1987/88.

However, a four-year stint would yield just one more trophy, the 1989 Scottish Cup, before his departure in 1991.

Seven years after leaving the dugout at Celtic Park for the final time, his last taste of management came at Hibernian in 1998 – where he stood in for one game as caretaker manager during a brief stint as director of football at Easter Road.

McNeill, awarded an MBE in 1974, also holds a place in the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame and the Scottish Football Hall of Fame.

He was voted Celtic's greatest captain in a 2002 fans' poll and was given a club ambassador role in 2009 – with a statue of him lifting the European Cup erected outside Celtic Park in November 2015.

"Celtic has been in my blood and a part of my life for so many years and to be recognised in this way, by the club I love, is truly humbling," he said at the time.

In May 2017, despite his failing health, McNeill attended an event at Glasgow City Chambers to mark the 50th anniversary of Celtic's triumph over Inter Milan in Lisbon.

Billy McNeill won an incredible 31 trophies in his glistening career. He will be sorely missed.