Monday, 2 December 2013



MAYBE it was the realisation that there won’t be many more such evenings. Most likely it was being in the presence of the recipient of the tribute dinner.
Whatever the reason for the lump in my throat, I found being in the company of so many football icons an almost overwhelming experience.
What was this, the aging cynic with a rapidly developing dislike of so many of the modern trends in our national game feeling emotional? Surely not!
But, yes, there I was surrounded by an Aladdin’s Cave of personalities from the past and it felt like a nostalgic trip down memory lane, one that I wanted to continue unabated.
The list of celebrities gathered at the Glasgow hotel hosting the event is too long to list here. Suffice to say that everywhere you turned there was a famous face smiling back.
I hadn’t realised until then that all of them to a man were prepared to acknowledge me, not with a grunt at the memory of a headline accompanying my by line that may have caused offence but with a warm handshake that said any past differences were dead and long buried.
And when Kenny Dalglish made his way through the throng of tables to offer his hand to Rodger Baillie and me, in turn, I was “pure made up,” as they say in Glasgow.
It was as if the King had stepped down from his throne to greet his subjects!
Suddenly my faith in footballers and the game that has been a large part of my life since I wore short trousers was largely restored.
There were nearly 800 guests in total but one man stood out above the rest, the person we had gathered together to honour: Billy McNeill – the most iconic of them all.
It was on a warm May evening in Lisbon in 1967 that Billy’s name was forever enshrined in Celtic folklore when he hoisted the European Cup above the heads of the Portuguese President and other political dignitaries after being forced to fight his way through a thronging mass of fans minus his team-mates to receive the trophy.
Now in his 70s, Big Billy, as he is affectionately known - not in recognition of his build but rather for his status in the game – still stands out in a crowd.
Eight of the Lisbon Lions survive following the passing of Ronnie Simpson, BobbyMurdoch and Jimmy Johnstone, but for as long as one of them remains standing a live link with a past age, when football seemed a much more entertaining spectacle and the world a slightly saner place, will endure.
When Derek McGregor, one of the Sun newspaper’s excellent team of football scribes and a valued colleague, called several weeks earlier to extend an invitation for me to attend as his guest I immediately replied in the affirmative before even consulting my diary.
In truth, had the date clashed with a previously arranged engagement I would still not have hesitated.
But I had not anticipated the sense of pure pleasure I would derive from an evening spent in the company of Derek and his other guests, the aforementioned Messrs Stanton, McGarvey and Latchford, John O’Neil, the former Dundee United, Hibs and Scotland midfielder, my ex Sun colleague, the venerable Rodger Baillie, and the glamorous Lawrie Anne Brown of Sky television.
Neither could I have anticipated the wave of nostalgia that would sweep over me as I watched film clips of Cesar’s greatest games in the Hoops, many of which I was present at and reported on.
But, of course, Billy has that effect on me. Having forged a close friendship with the greatest living Celt, I don’t mind admitting that I swell up with pride every time he puts an arm round me or publically pays me a compliment of which I am largely undeserving.
For years I ghost wrote his column in the Sun and we have shared many treasured moments, both socially and professionally.
Our friendship blossomed at the tail end of Billy’s highly distinguished playing career and grew over the subsequent years of his managerships at Clyde, Aberdeen and Celtic.
I was the first person outside his immediate family to learn the shattering news that he required major heart surgery.
I was also among the first non-family members to visit him as he made a remarkably swift recovery in the privacy of Glasgow’s Nuffield Hospital.
He was already back on his feet just days after going under the knife, with the proviso that he did not walk more than a few yards and avoided climbing stairs.
The medicos might as well have held their tongues, for Billy ignored both pieces of advice when he walked me to the front door before ascending the stairs back to his room.
That was a measure of his indomitable spirit and refusal to bow to adversity.
But what has struck me most about Billy over the years is his humility; his refusal to see himself as an icon.
I recall in particular a bleak November afternoon in 2003 when we sat in the front room of his Newton Mearns home, where so few of his many trophies, medals and various other momentos are on display.
We were in the final stages of completing his autobiography, Hail Cesar (He was a fan of the actor, Romero, not the Emperor, Julius), and Billy was pouring over parts of the manuscript.
I suddenly found myself staring at him almost with a sense of wonderment that here I was, his ghost writer, in the company of a man who had achieved immortality.
Gradually, Billy became aware of my stare and asked what was going through my mind.
“I’m just thinking how many thousands would give their eye teeth to swap places with me right now,” I replied.
“Listen,” said Billy “I’m no different from you or anyone else. I sleep, I eat, I worry and sometimes I even cry.”
“Aye,” I shot back. “But how many guys do you know and are friends with who’ve lifted the European Cup?”
He smiled at that point but not in a smug way, because humility is a quality Billy embraces better than most.
So, to that thankfully small band of Celtic fans who live purely in the present and who suggest that it’s time the club moved on from The Lions, I say this: Enjoy having them while you can and continue to honour them for what they did to establish your club on the world football stage.
Thanks for the invitation, Del. The hangover the following day that preceded the long and winding road back to Inverness was worth every moment of the discomfort.
And, please God I’m still around the next time a Lion roars.