WHEN the announcement of Billy McNeill’s passing was made, naturally tributes poured in for the first British Captain to lift the European Cup with Celtic in 1967. Most tributes will point to the fact McNeill was a great Celtic Captain during their dominance under Jock Stein from mid sixties to early seventies, and oversaw four title wins during two spells as Celtic Manager, including the famous Centenary season in 1987/88 where they clinched the double.
Amidst those successes, it should also be pointed out that Billy McNeill will also be held in high regard by Aberdeen fans for his sole season at the helm at Pittodrie back in 1977/78. There may have been no silverware at the end of it, but it was a campaign that laid the foundations for incoming Manager Alex Ferguson to build upon and the rest is history!
The Dons were looking for a new manager after Ally McLeod left the North East for the Scotland job. McNeill had only been in management for eight games at Clyde at the tail end of the 1976/77 season, but his mentor Jock Stein persuaded Dick Donald to become McLeod’s successor. McLeod himself had left the club in a stable position with a League Cup win and a third placed finish in the Premier League, giving McNeill a solid platform to build on.
Speaking on Stand Free: 100 years of Aberdeen FC back in 2002 (a DVD launched in celebration of the clubs centenary year in 2003), McNeill reflected on stepping into McLeod’s shoes. He said: “For me, it was my first experience of a big management job so I realised immediately that Ally McLeod had done an awful lot of very good things, very sensible things. I decided I would do it my way so I didn’t just follow on from Ally, but I didn’t disturb too much of many of the things he had done, because they were excellent.”
McNeill needed to get off to a good start, and got exactly that with a 3-1 win over Rangers on the opening day of the season. It would be the first of three League victories they would have over the Ibrox men that campaign, with whom they’d battled out with in an epic title race. He also added Gordon Strachan and Steve Archibald to an already talented squad that contained the likes of Bobby Clark, Willie Miller, Drew Jarvie and Joe Harper, and they displayed great consistency to mount a title challenge.
From Christmas Eve 1977, where they trounced Rangers 4-0 at Pittodrie, they remained unbeaten for the rest of the Premier Division campaign to give themselves a chance of the title. However, they fell two points short of the men from Govan (in the days of two points for a win) at the end of the season, and it was their old foes who dented the Dons aspirations in both Cup competitions as well. Firstly, a 6-1 humiliation at Ibrox in the second round first leg saw Aberdeen lose their grip on the League Cup, despite a 3-1 win in the return leg. Then the Scottish Cup Final brought further disappointment as a 2-1 loss saw double despair for McNeill and the Dons and a clean sweep for Rangers, who secured the treble.
Despite ending up with nothing, it was a good season for Aberdeen and one that promised greater things under Billy McNeill. Unfortunately, the only job he would’ve considered leaving the Granite City for at that time became available when Jock Stein stood down from his role as Celtic Manager, paving the way for “Caesar” to return to Parkhead. Inevitably, he found the lure irresistible.
Although McNeill won three League titles in his first spell as Celtic Manager between 1979 and 1983, he did have some regret about leaving Aberdeen after just one season. Back in 2002, he said: “With hindsight, if I had been sensible, I wouldn’t have left at that particular time, because I enjoyed myself. It was a marvellous club, marvellous board of directors to work for, great people round about the staff as well. It was a year I really did enjoy, but that’s life and that’s history as they say.”
It was a blow at the time, but things worked out pretty well for both Billy McNeill and Aberdeen after he chose to follow his heart back to Parkhead. He led Celtic to three titles in five seasons and then, after a spell in England leading Manchester City to promotion then overseeing Aston Villa’s relegation, he returned to win the Double in Celtic’s centenary season. Aberdeen, meanwhile, went onto their greatest ever period with ten major trophies in eight years, including the famous European Cup Winners Cup triumph, under Alex Ferguson.
Who knows if Billy McNeill would’ve overseen such a success had he stayed longer at Pittodrie. What is without doubt is that none of the success would’ve been possible without the good work put in during his twelve months in the Granite City, putting the club in a position where they could challenge for Scotland’s biggest prizes and giving them players belief that they could take it onto the next level.
Sir Alex Ferguson is in no doubt grateful to Billy McNeill for the success he had at Aberdeen, and so are the Aberdeen fans.
Tributes to Billy McNeill from Aberdeen fans on Twitter