Hard to believe it’s already 12 months since we said our final goodbyes to the man who pretty much epitomised Celtic for many of us supporters who grew up in the mid to late-1960s. In this short tribute series, we look back at the early career of the incomparable Billy McNeill.
Part 2 of the article saw Billy partnering fellow-teenager John Clark in the Celtic defence for the first time at Arbroath in October 1959, having begun the season as the club’s regular right-back, before the return of Bobby Evans and Dunky MacKay saw him drop out of the side until December. We pick up the story from there.
Jimmy McGrory’s Celts had struggled since their emphatic 5-0 victory at Gayfield in October, with only two wins from the ten games played. Billy McNeill was one of six changes made for the home match with Airdrieonians on Saturday, 12 December 1959, the youngster coming in at right-half alongside Bobby Evans and Bertie Peacock. Lady Luck would continue to desert the Parkhead men, inside-right Eric Smith limping off after just 10 minutes, with the game ending goalless.
Smith would be replaced by Dan O’Hara for the trip to Paisley the following Saturday, the 22-year-old responding by scoring his only goal for Celtic to open the scoring early in the second half. Two late strikes from John Colrain and Neil Mochan wrapped up an early Christmas gift for the long-suffering Hoops support in the 19,000 crowd.
The relief didn’t last for long, the Bhoys enduring a 2-1 Boxing Day defeat against a Kilmarnock side featuring new signing Andy Kerr from Manchester City. He had replaced Joe McBride, following the prolific striker’s big-money move to English champions Wolverhampton Wanderers, just a few weeks after Stan Cullis’ side had christened the new Parkhead floodlights. Neil Mochan equalised with a typical long-range effort just before the interval, after Kerr had given the hosts the lead, a late Black goal consigning Celts to yet another defeat.
The greatest decade in Celtic’s history got underway, ironically, with a last-gasp single-goal defeat at home to Rangers on Friday, 1 January 1960, Millar scoring as a Hoops posse led by skipper Bertie Peacock pursued referee Hugh Phillips vehemently claiming that the Ibrox forward had been offside. Their pleas would fall on deaf ears, as the new year followed on where the old one had left off. Frank Haffey had saved a John Little penalty on the hour mark, after Celtic’s left-back Jim Kennedy had blocked a goalbound effort with his hand.
The following day, Celtic travelled to Tynecastle to face League-leaders Hearts, the Gorgie men on a real high after a 5-1 success over Edinburgh rivals Hibernian in the derby match. An early header from Gordon Smith opened the scoring before Peacock’s 30-yard scorcher left Gordon Marshall helpless. Willie Bauld restored Hearts’ lead on the hour then a late spot-kick from Thomson ended the scoring and the contest at 3-1.
Raith Rovers visited Parkhead on Saturday, 9 January 1960, for the fourth meeting of the season between the clubs, both Billy McNeill and Bertie Auld forced to leave the field through injury, returning as virtual passengers as a second-half Neil Mochan goal secured the points. Both men would be missing from the line-up for the remainder of the month, which included two friendlies with English opposition which brought back memories of Empire Exhibition victories back in 1938, a 1-0 win over Everton at Celtic Park, the Goodison side featuring former-Celt Bobby Collins and Parkhead recent transfer target, Tommy Ring, who joined from Clyde, followed by a humiliating 7-1 hammering by Sunderland at Roker Park, where 16-year-old Bobby Murdoch received a first taste of the big-time, travelling south with the squad.
Billy McNeill made his first-team return for the Scottish Cup tie with St Mirren at Love St on Saturday, 13 February 1960, again at right-half beside the experienced Evans and Peacock. A huge crowd of 37,000 saw the game finish 1-1, Alec Byrne levelling matters just seconds after Rodger had given the Buddies the advantage. The sever Scottish weather saw the replay deferred until Wednesday, 24 February, however, it would be well worth the wait for the 38,000 who turned up that evening. A late Neil Mochan equaliser, his second of the game, saw the match move into extra-time at 3-3, John Divers later completing his own double to rescue Celtic after the Paisley men had notched a fourth.
The tie would be settled at the third attempt, on Leap Year Monday, 29 February 1960, Celtic this time running out convincing 5-2 winners in front of over 51,000 at Parkhead, the crowd no doubt bolstered by the offer of free entry to season-ticket holders of both clubs. This would be a personal triumph for Neil Mochan, the Hoops centre-forward scoring all five of Celtic’s goals on the night. The Bhoys were 4-0 ahead before a late two-goal fightback from the visitors was finished off by Neilly’s fifth with 9 minutes to play.
Billy would celebrate his 20th birthday weekend in the Highlands as Celts hit two goals in the last six minutes to avoid a huge upset in the next round of the Scottish Cup just five days later. Elgin City led through a Grant goal before John Divers and Eric Smith broke home hearts. There was a second game in 48 hours to be addressed as Hibernian visited Celtic Park for a re-arranged League game, on Monday, 7 March 1960. The only goal this time arrived as early as the eighth minute, Jim Conway, deputising for the injured Mochan, securing the points.
The cup run continued the following Saturday, with a comfortable 2-0 win over Partick Thistle at Celtic Park, Eric Smith and John Colrain the Bhoys who mattered, either side of half-time, Bertie Auld playing most of the 90 minutes as a virtual passenger, following an ankle knock.
On this Day: In 1960, Jock Stein was officially appointed manager of Dunfermline Athletic.
The rest they say is history. pic.twitter.com/nWKxzCyORg
— Dunfermline Athletic (@officialdafc) March 14, 2017
The semi-final draw paired Celtic and Rangers, creating huge excitement but that wasn’t the most significant event to take place over that weekend. Having sacked their manager Andy Dickson, second-bottom Dunfermline Athletic approached Celtic to offer the vacant post to Parkhead reserve team coach, Jock Stein. The offer was accepted.
Celtic and Scottish football was about to witness the birth of an incredible managerial career.
Thanks, as always, to the folk behind the Celtic Wiki, a wonderful source of information.
Follow Matt on Twitter @Boola_vogue
INVINCIBLE by Matt Corr
🏃♂️ “I did my own winter training camp in Dubai, at the same time as the team was there!”#CelticFC tour guide @Boola_vogue is running the #TokyoMarathon🇯🇵 to raise funds for @FoundationCFC. pic.twitter.com/T6joeAgPLe
— Celtic Football Club (from 🏡) (@CelticFC) February 5, 2019
The Celtic Star’s very own Matt Corr – who you may also know as a Tour Guide at Celtic Park – publishes his first Celtic book, titled INVINCIBLE – early next month. This beautiful hardback book will be the definitive story of Celtic’s magical2016-17 season – it truly is wonderful, a real joy to read, and brilliantly written by Matt.
If you have been reading Matt’s regular contributions on The Celtic Star or indeed in the Matchday Programme or in the Celtic View you will know just how talented a Celtic writer he is. The book is published by The Celtic Star and you can pre-order below.
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