Celtic boss Neil Lennon: What Billy McNeill meant to me

Neil Lennon, left, with Billy McNeill in Lisbon in 2014. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS
Neil Lennon, left, with Billy McNeill in Lisbon in 2014. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

As he shed tears for Billy McNeill this week, Neil Lennon was also able to reflect anew on the enormity of the shoulders he stands upon in Celtic’s history.

The death of the club’s greatest ever captain leaves Lennon as the only man alive who has won a league and Scottish Cup double for Celtic as both a player and manager.

That achievement he shares with McNeill and the equally iconic Jock Stein means more to the club’s current interim boss than any of the other myriad successes his long association with Celtic has brought him.

“One of the biggest highlights of my career was winning the double in 2012-13 during my first spell as manager,” said Lennon. “I became part of a select band who had played in a double-winning team and then managed one for Celtic.

“I was suddenly in that bracket with Billy and, for me, that was worth more than any remuneration or financial gain the game could ever give you. It is humbling to be in that bracket, absolutely.

“Billy is the benchmark and he will always be the benchmark. I get all nostalgic thinking about when I was a kid and what he meant when I was growing up. He is the standard bearer and he is the greatest.

“It’s such a huge loss to the club in more ways than one. We’re in mourning.

“I’ve been on this earth for 47 years and with Celtic being a huge part of your life, the first person you think about is Billy McNeill. He is the leader of the greatest team we have ever had. He was the manager, he encompassed everything that was good about the club and he had this real aura and presence about him as well.

“Billy gave me a lot of great advice when I was doing this job the first time around, particularly through the bad times. In the good times, he’d stay away and let you enjoy it. In the bad times, he’d come in and give you a lot of support.

“In that wee room at Celtic Park, the manager’s room, he’d wait until everyone had gone away and he’d pop his head in for five minutes to have a chat. If you had an adverse result, or a defeat, he’d pop in and ask how you were doing, what do you think, he’d give some advice on what to look out for and what not to look for, what I was doing well and what I could do better. He didn’t have to do it and I cherish those moments.

“I was hit by a real wave of emotion and nostalgia when I heard the news on Tuesday morning. It’s amazing because I didn’t think it would hit me as hard as it did.

“I cried. I also saw Charlie [Nicholas] crying on the TV and I knew how he would have felt as well.

“Billy bridged generations and, for me, he is still the figurehead We have lost an icon and I don’t think he knew how much he meant to so many people. I don’t think he realised what an impact or influence he had on so many people at this club.”

Lennon is gratified he was able to form a relationship with McNeill but admits to apprehension ahead of his first encounter with him.

“I remember when I first met him,” added Lennon. “I actually just missed him at Manchester City – I started my apprenticeship as a player there when he had just left as manager.

“Then I met him when I came up to play for Celtic in 2000. He was down at the training ground seeing John Clark, and I was just in awe.

“Then you eventually got to meet all of the Lisbon Lions teams and realised what an unbelievable bunch of boys they were.

“Billy was very humble and he was a gentleman as well. Obviously, our condolences go to his wife Liz, who was just an amazing support and care and love for him through the last few years of his life. She’s probably going through a difficult time and the family get all of our love and support.

“In terms of Cesar, he was the man. The first man to lift the European Cup. He was the leader of a team that dominated the game here and in Europe and we may never see that again. He crossed generations whether that be as a player, a manager, or just being Billy McNeill.”

Celtic Park will be awash with emotion tomorrow when McNeill’s life is celebrated before and during the Premiership fixture against Kilmarnock. Lennon will urge his players to relish the occasion and deliver a performance befitting of the man being honoured.

“The players should thrive on it,” he said. “For me, it will probably encompass what Celtic is all about and the players should embrace that.

“Obviously, they have to focus on beating a very good team and we have a job to do, but also enjoying the emotion, the tributes, the noise and the colour.

“It’s a sad day and a sad week, but this is an opportunity to celebrate Billy for what he really was.

“Billy would have wanted the noise, that’s what he wanted Celtic Park always to be. That meant as much to him as anything else and we will try to work and endeavour to play some really great football.”