Happy Birthday to Billy McNeill who will be 76 today. Without doubt Billy ranks among the greats of Scottish football but he would only gain 29 caps and towards the end of the sixties would often be regarded as second choice to Rangers’ Ronnie McKinnon.
Billy probably had the worst start of any centre half for Scotland as he would play in a defence that would let in a total of 16 goals in his first six caps.
Billy’s first game was on 15th April, 1961 at Wembley. England would win 9-3. Billy retained his place in defence as would fellow debutant Rangers’ Bobby Shearer for the World Cup Qualifier double header against the Republic of Ireland. Billy would start these games in May, with fellow Celt Pat Crerand playing alongside him. Scotland won 4-1 at Hampden and followed it up four days later with a 3-0 win in Dublin.
These games were followed a week later with a 4-0 defeat to Group rivals Czechoslovakia in Bratislava.
Season 1961-’62 saw Scotland host Czechoslovakia at Hampden in September. Scotland would go behind twice but Denis Law grabbed two late goals to give Scotland a 3-2 win and set up a play-off. However, next up was a Home International against Northern Ireland in Belfast in early October. Scotland won 6-1 with three Rangers players scoring; Alex Scott hitting a hat-trick, Ralph Brand a brace and Davie Wilson a solitary goal.
Billy would miss the next two games and it would be an injury ravaged Scotland that would lose 4-2 to the Czechs in Belgium after extra time.
McNeill would return for the chance to gain revenge on England in April 1963 and was part of the team that won 2-0 at Hampden with goals from Davie Wilson and Eric Caldow to win the British Championship.
A couple of weeks later and defeat in rather bruising encounter with Uruguay (is there any other?) at Hampden, that Scotland lost 3-2 to finish the ’62-‘63 season.
Ian Ure had replaced Billy in his two game absence in late ’62 and was now given a run out in the team by Ian McColl and so Billy was on the side-lines for the next year until a friendly in June ’63 against the Republic of Ireland that saw Scotland lose one nil and Billy subsequently dropped for the next game; a 6-2 drubbing of Spain in Madrid.
Again Ure became first choice Centre Half until November ’63 when Billy was brought back in to play against Wales in a 2-1 win at Hampden with John White and Denis Law scoring for the Scots. Once more Billy was to taste victory against England at Hampden in April ’64, as Alan Gilzean’s solitary goal spilt the teams. This would be a special occasion for Billy as this was the first of 8 games that he would captain the team. Gilzean would provide a brace as the Scots played a 2-2 draw with West Germany in Hanover to finish off the season.
Injury would see him out of the team until April ’65 and a 2-2 draw with England at Wembley, was quickly followed by a blank score friendly draw at Hampden with Spain. Then came two away World Cup Qualifiers with Jock Stein now in charge. The first saw Scotland grab a vital point in Chorzow, Poland with Denis Law netting the Scots goal. Four days later a 2-1 win in Helsinki saw them complete a brace of wins over Finland with goals from Davie Wilson and John Greig.
A 3-2 defeat to Northern Ireland in October was followed with a disastrous last six minutes against Poland at Hampden where the Scots lost two goals after Billy had given them a great start by netting in the 14th minute. An amazing 107,580 attended that game and 100, 393 would witness Scotland beat Italy 1-0 with a goal in the 88th minute a month later. However, Billy did not play in this game and would not feature again under Jock Stein as Scotland manager as Ronnie McKinnon had made his debut that and retained his place more or less for the next few years.
Managers, Prentice and McDonald came and went without picking Billy and he was also absent for the famous ’67 win at Wembley under Bobby Brown but did play in a friendly against the US.S.R. in May that Scotland lost two nil. February 1968 saw him line up alongside McKinnon against England at Hampden in a game that finished 1-1 and saw Scotland lose out in a place for the ’68 Euro finals.
Billy played his next game and scored his second Scotland goal in a Home International down at the Racecourse as the Scots defeated Wales 5-3. A week later on May 10th, Billy once again faced the Auld Enemy but a decent Scotland team were spanked 4-1 at Wembley. Billy did retain his place a week later as the Scots ran riot against Cyprus winning 8-0 at Hampden with Coin Stein netting four goals and Billy also getting among the goals early on too.
McKinnon and McNeill were once more brought together for the vital World Cup Qualifier against West Germany in Hamburg in October ’69. Despite a valiant effort the Scots were to lose 3-2 and say goodbye to their dreams of Mexico ’70.
Billy must have thought for the next few years, that his time with Scotland was over until he had a bit of a renaissance under Tommy Docherty and played in all three games of the 1972 Home International Championship. Two decent wins against Northern Ireland and Wales at Hampden winning 2-0 and 1-0 respectively, saw Scotland with a chance to win the Championship outright. However, in a rather bruising encounter the Scots lost one nil to an Alan Ball goal. England had already lost to Northern Ireland at Wembley and so this Championship was shared between the Scots and English.
And so that was it for Billy and Scotland as a player although he did play for Celtic for a few more years and then move into a managerial career. Billy would however carve out a wee niche for a few years as a co-commentator on many a Scotland match with the BBC.
Billy hasn’t been in the best of health of late and we at the Epistles wish him all the best for the coming year. One final thought, Billy is just one of a few statues that grace Celtic park in memory of his great service but when will we see the likes at Hampden to one of our golden heroes?