Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Michelle Donelan.)
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving the House the opportunity to pay tribute to, and mark the passing of, the great Billy McNeill, who died last month at the age of 79. We have plenty of time this evening and I will be as generous as the House requires in taking interventions. I am sure many will want to contribute. Billy McNeill is rightly considered one of the finest footballers of his generation. It is safe to say that what he achieved in his glittering, trophy-laden career will never be matched.
At the outset, I should declare a personal interest. First, my great, great grandfather, John O’Hara, was one of the founding fathers of Celtic football club back in 1888. Secondly, I am a very—I should stress the word very—minor shareholder in the club. Most importantly, like thousands of other wee boys growing up in Glasgow in the 1960s and 1970s, Billy McNeill was my hero. Who better was there for a wee boy to model himself on, or to aspire to become, than this tall, handsome, athletic, intelligent, articulate man, who was doing what every one of us dreamed of doing: playing for and captaining the football team that we loved?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will. It would not be an Adjournment debate if the hon. Gentleman did not intervene.
I want to know how he’s going to sell this in Northern Ireland!
If you listen, you’ll find out.
First, may I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate? Billy McNeill had a long association with Celtic spanning more than 60 years as a player, manager and club ambassador. As a player and a manager he won 31 major trophies with Celtic. As a lifelong Rangers football club supporter, I appreciate very much the contribution he made to Scottish football and to Old Firm games. Does he not agree that Billy McNeill will be greatly missed by those who love the beautiful game across all the football teams in Scotland, Europe and the rest of the world?
I genuinely and sincerely thank the hon. Gentleman—my hon. Friend—for that contribution. He is absolutely right, I will touch on that later in my speech. Billy McNeill did bring together the very best in people and the very best in football.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will make a bit of progress and come back to my hon. Friend.
Billy McNeill was a one-club man, and that club was Celtic, for whom he played a remarkable 822 times between 1957 and 1975. No other player in the club’s 131-year history has pulled on the famous green and white hooped shirt more often than Billy McNeill. In an 18-year career as a Celtic player, Billy McNeill won nine consecutive Scottish league titles, seven Scottish cups, six Scottish league cups, and of course he captained Celtic to their greatest triumph when they beat Inter Milan 2-1 in the European cup final to become champions of Europe in 1967. Amid all that, he was capped 29 times by Scotland.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He has made an excellent start to his speech and his tribute to Billy McNeill. Does he agree that even football fans and players from rival clubs are united in their admiration for Billy McNeill, and that in particular he is an inspiration to young men who aspire to play football for Celtic or other clubs?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For me, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Billy McNeill was that iconic figure. He was what little boys like me aspired to become, but sadly failed miserably ever to achieve. I have not given up hope that my time is yet to come and that Celtic’s scouting system will be looking for a very poor, very overweight 56-year-old. One lives in hope.
As one of the very few people in this Chamber who remembers watching the cup final, on a flickering, black-and-white television with my parents, I am very proud to think about Billy McNeill. My father supported Ayr United—he was a lost cause—but my husband was a lifelong Rangers supporter. One of the iconic images after Billy McNeill died was John Greig and his truly emotional approach to Celtic Park, with the wreath in remembrance of Billy McNeill. It is people like the late Billy McNeill who can unite the whole of Scotland, no matter what team they support, and he should be applauded for it.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I will touch on the way in which Billy McNeill brought communities together.
My hon. Friend knows that I am not a Celtic fan, although I am not quite in the same camp as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Nevertheless, I have six brothers-in-law who are all mad Celtic fans. Kevin, Terence, Mark, Bernard, Micheal and Dermot Mullins have told me over the years that they were born within 30 miles of Celtic Park, and that the whole Celtic team that won the European cup final in 1967 was also born within 30 miles of Celtic Park. Does that not say an awful lot about Billy McNeill’s leadership and the way he managed to get that team to the final and win it, compared with, for example, other teams who look a bit more like the United Nations when they get to a European cup final these days? Is it not an absolutely fantastic achievement for the whole team that they managed to do that from within such a small area?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I will come on to the nature of the team that won the European cup in 1967 and how close-knit they were, and how they represented their communities in a way that sadly today is such a rarity. One would have thought that some of his six brothers-in-law would make more of an impression on him than they clearly have.
After he hung up his boots, Billy McNeill went on to enjoy a very successful career in football management with Clyde, Aberdeen, Manchester City, Aston Villa and, very briefly, with Hibernian. Twice he managed his beloved Celtic, most notably steering them to a league and cup double in their centenary season of 1988.
As a lifelong Manchester City fan, I am disappointed that I cannot be in Manchester tonight for the treble winners parade, but this gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to Billy McNeill for his time as manager of City. It was a tough gig being manager of City in the mid-80s, and we should not forget his achievements and the things he did for the club. He left in rather difficult circumstances—can the hon. Gentleman believe that he was frustrated because City had no money to build the team that he wanted? However, we should not forget that he stabilised our club and got us promoted back to the top flight. We remember him fondly at Manchester City as well.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. As he says, changed days indeed—the idea of Manchester City having no money.
Even in retirement, Billy McNeill maintained a close relationship with the club. It was put on a more formal basis in 2009 when he became Celtic football club’s first official ambassador. Through it all, despite enjoying this fabulously successful career— one in which he was propelled into the realms of superstardom, being adored by tens of thousands—Billy McNeill remained unaffected and unchanged. He always saw himself as the fan who got to live the dream, and he was living it on behalf of hundreds of thousands of us who never could. I believe that that, more than any other aspect of his success, including as a player, forged that unbreakable link between Billy McNeill and the Celtic support.
For the last few years of his life Billy lived with Alzheimer’s and his public appearances became fewer and fewer. The final time I saw Billy McNeill was at Celtic Park last year. Just before kick-off, he and his wife, Liz, walked from the car park to the front entrance. The crowded concourse parted and everyone, from pensioner to primary school kid, stood and cheered and applauded, because to us fans, whether we were old enough to have seen him play or not, Billy McNeill was Celtic.
When Billy McNeill passed away last month, the sincerity of the tributes and the esteem in which he was held, far beyond Celtic football club and its supporters, was something to behold. Football giants Sir Kenny Dalglish and Sir Alex Ferguson were among those present at the requiem mass at St Aloysius’ in Glasgow, as was former Rangers manager Walter Smith. It was great to see Rangers legends John Greig and Willie Henderson there, too, demonstrating the huge mutual respect that existed between players of both teams—two teams that went toe to toe for honours throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Not only was there mutual respect; long-lasting firm friendships were established across the great footballing divide in Glasgow.
I might be in political and footballing opposition to the hon. Gentleman, but does he agree that Billy McNeill was an icon and a great ambassador on and off the park, not just for Celtic but for Scottish football, around the world but especially in Europe after Celtic took the European cup? Scotland should be proud of Billy McNeill and remember him as the iconic player he was.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. I will come later to that golden era of Scottish football. Understandably and probably rightly, Celtic pick up the credit and the limelight, but Scottish football fans in general had so much to celebrate in 1967.
I was lucky enough to meet Billy McNeill several times, both as a fan and latterly in a professional capacity. People say, “Never meet your heroes. You’ll only be left disappointed”, but when I met Billy McNeill nothing could have been further from the truth. One of the first times I met him was in Celtic’s centenary season of 1987-88. I had won first prize in a raffle—well, actually, not me but my mum won first prize, and I was sent to collect her star prize: a brand-new, all-singing, all-dancing colour telly. The second prize was a signed Celtic shirt and ball and the opportunity to watch a Celtic game from the Celtic Park directors box. Fortunately, I managed to persuade the organisers that, as the person who won the raffle, I should be given the choice of which prize to take. Safe to say, my mum never got her new telly.
My brother Diarmid and I got to Celtic Park, and what’s more Billy McNeill, then the manager, took us into the home dressing room an hour before kick-off to meet the players ahead of a crucial match against Aberdeen. It was a wonderful and remarkable gesture. Despite the importance of the fixture, he knew what it meant for fans like us to have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in the Celtic changing room before a big match. I am deeply honoured, therefore, that today, 32 years on, I can go some way to repay that kindness by leading the tributes to Billy McNeill on the Floor of the House of Commons.
Over the years, our paths crossed. When I was working as a TV producer-director, I had occasion to interview Billy McNeill as part of a number of documentaries I was working on. He would always make himself available and his interviews would invariably be thoughtful and considered, but they were also incredibly frustrating, because no matter how much I wanted him to talk about himself and his contribution he simply would not—or probably could not. All he could talk about was the contribution of those around him. An interview with Billy McNeill would be full of: “Yeah, that’s all well and good, but Jimmy Johnstone did that”, or, “Yes, if it hadn’t been for John Clark’s contribution, I’d have been nothing”, or, “That was Bobby Murdoch. What a player he was”. I am reminded of what Jock Stein said when someone asked him what made a great player. He replied that a great player was
“the one who brings out the best in others. When I am saying that I’m talking about Billy McNeill.”
To me, that sums up Billy McNeill. As I said, rarely, if ever, would he talk about how he felt, or give himself the praise that was absolutely his due.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and for securing the debate. He has been talking about Billy McNeill, the leader. Billy McNeill inspired confidence in the people around him. I remember, as a little boy, going with my dad to see Celtic for the first time. It was 1 April 1969, and Celtic were playing St Johnstone at the old Muirton Park ground, My dad had taken me to see Celtic because, as a little boy from north-east Scotland, I had not had an opportunity to see them play before. My dad worked on Saturdays; he was a butcher. The score was 2-0 at half-time, to St Johnstone. I was quite fraught. I was eight, and my heroes were being beaten. My dad said, “Don’t worry about it, Stephen: they will come back in the second half and win 3-2”—and they did!
That inspirational feeling that Billy McNeill would generate was evidenced at the Scottish cup final in 1988, when Celtic won 2-1 against Dundee United. Mrs Thatcher presented the cup that day; it was a very memorable day. [Interruption.] Billy McNeill was a great leader in every respect. He was a model of professionalism and leadership for all of us.
And the hon. Gentleman had been doing so well! However, he is right to say that, particularly in that centenary season, there was an aura. There was something that we knew.
The hon. Gentleman will also recall the semi-final when Celtic were a goal down to Hearts and heading for injury time. Somehow we scored two during injury time, and qualified for the final. We were a goal down in the final, but everyone just knew that it was going to be OK because it was written in the stars, and it was OK.
I was talking about Billy McNeill’s self-effacing character. I did once get him to talk about himself and how he felt. He was talking about the greatest moment of his career, when he went up to lift the European cup in Lisbon in 1967, but what he wanted to talk about was his regret at having to go alone. Because of the way in which the stadium was configured, all his team-mates were back in the dressing room, and he alone was taken across the pitch. What he wanted to talk about was how he led a team, yet he had been left to pick up Europe’s premier trophy on his own. That is the kind of player Billy McNeill was. That is the kind of captain Billy McNeill was. That is the kind of man Billy McNeill was.
Billy McNeill was born in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, on 2 March 1940. His dad, Jimmy, a Dundonian, was a career soldier who served 22 years with the Black Watch. His mum, Ellen, was the daughter of Lithuanian migrants, who, as Billy says in his autobiography, left Lithuania believing they were heading for the United States, only to be dumped on the docks of Leith by some unscrupulous sea captain. But my goodness, America’s loss was most certainly Scotland’s gain. Billy’s maternal grandparents gravitated towards Lanarkshire, where they settled, along with about 7,000 other Lithuanians who had gone there primarily to work in the coal mines.
The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this outside the Chamber, but I am proud to have a strong familial link with the legend Billy McNeill. My grandma, who was of Lithuanian descent, and Billy’s mum, who was known as Nellie, were close friends. Indeed, I understand that Nellie went out with my great-uncle Charlie before she married Billy’s dad. Great-uncle Charlie was a wonderful man. He was Labour to his core, he was Celtic, and, obviously, he was Lithuanian. As I am sure we will hear from my hon. Friend shortly, Bellshill was very proud, and should still be very proud, of perhaps its most famous son.
How different the course of history could have been had great-uncle Charlie managed to woo Nellie! On behalf of Celtic fans everywhere, I am very glad that he did not.
As the MP for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, I know that Bellshill is already talking about erecting a statue to Billy McNeill to recognise the great man. I speak as someone who grew up in Lanarkshire; my brother was born in 1967 and his first words were “Celtic”. I also knew Jimmy Johnstone very well; I knew Jimmy all through his career and all through his life. I knew him through the pub, and through the pub I got to meet a lot of the Lisbon lions. It was an absolute pleasure and God rest them all.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. It shows that every one of us in Scotland seems to have just one, two or three degrees of separation; it is often said that it is the largest village in the world, and that is true.
I remember my dad telling a story. When Billy McNeill first signed for Celtic my dad was a sales rep and Billy worked in insurance and he used to meet Billy for coffee in the afternoon. Of course everybody claimed to know Billy McNeill and my dad used to tell the story that he was actually known not as Billy McNeill but as Willie McNeill. We never really believed this, but when he left Celtic to join Manchester City my dad wrote to him, “Dear Willie”, and got a letter back saying, “Dear Charlie, thank you for the letter, best regards, Willie.” So everybody seems to know everybody; the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
The Lanarkshire connection continues; I give way to my hon. Friend.
I do not wish in any way to introduce a note of contention into this debate, but the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) should know that the Lithuanian club in Bellshill is in my constituency, and as Bill McNeill is half-Lithuanian I am claiming him.
I will leave Lanarkshire to decide which part is which.
Billy McNeill attended Our Lady’s High School in Motherwell and gained highers in English, Maths and Spanish and could easily have gone to university, but he also excelled on the football pitch and was being looked at by Arsenal, Manchester United, Newcastle, Clyde and Partick Thistle when, in 1957, he was selected to play for Scotland schools against England at Celtic Park. The match, which Scotland won 3-0, was watched by Jock Stein, who was then reserve team coach at Celtic. So impressed was he by what he saw that he persuaded the club to sign this young talent.
It would be lovely to be able to say “And the rest is history” or “It was plain sailing from then on in,” but it was far from that, because ironically Billy McNeill’s arrival at Celtic Park coincided with one of the most dismal periods in the club’s history: “the wilderness years” during which not a single trophy was won in almost a decade and during which the club finished sixth, eighth and even ninth on one occasion in the old first division.
In addition, Jock Stein had left the club to become manager of Dunfermline, and Celtic appeared to be in an inescapable downward spiral. Billy too had plenty of opportunities to leave Celtic. In 1963, Bill Nicholson, the legendary boss of Tottenham Hotspur, offered to quadruple Billy’s wages if he would agree to move to White Hart Lane. Tempted as he was, he turned them down, such was his loyalty to Celtic.
He probably had occasion to regret that decision as the malaise at Celtic Park deepened in the 1960s. It was not until Jock Stein arrived back at Celtic Park in March 1965 that things begin to change, almost immediately, for the club and Billy personally. Within weeks of Stein’s arrival Celtic had won their first trophy in almost a decade. Billy McNeill’s late winner against Dunfermline in the 1965 Scottish cup final heralded a hitherto unimaginable period of domination of Scottish football by Celtic. My dad was lucky enough to be one of the 108,000 people packed inside Hampden that day to see history being made, as was, if I am not mistaken, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick); we had a conversation about this last week.
In the following season Celtic won their first Scottish league title in 11 years and qualified for the European cup for the first time. On their way to becoming the first team from these islands to be crowned champions of Europe, Celtic had to overcome the champions of Switzerland, France, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia before beating the mighty Inter Milan, champions of Italy, in the final itself. That a team of local boys—all born within 30 miles of Celtic Park, a team that cost just £30,000 to assemble, and a team led by the grandson of a Lithuanian miner—could achieve this is, quite simply, a fairy tale. And it is a fairy tale, I believe, that will endure for so long as there are people alive to talk about football.
That game in Lisbon was won by an 84th minute winner from Stevie Chalmers, to whom I should like to pay tribute. He sadly died just a few days after the passing of Billy McNeill. He was a marvellous player for Celtic and Scotland and, as I have said, he scored the most important goal in the history of Celtic football club that day in Lisbon. For Celtic fans, whether they were there or not—indeed, whether they were born or not—that afternoon has left an indelible mark. Indeed, I cannot remember a time in my life when I could not rhyme off that team: Simpson, Craig, Gemmill, Murdoch, McNeill, Clark, Johnstone, Wallace, Chalmers, Auld and Lennox.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, as I grew up in a family of Celtic fanatics, we would inevitably talk football when all the uncles, aunts and cousins got together. Years after Lisbon, the stories would be told again and again. Interestingly, however, the most oft-repeated tale was not about Lisbon itself. In our family, the most revered tale was that of Billy McNeill’s last-minute winner against the Yugoslav champions Vojvodina in the quarter-final. Having pulled back a one-goal deficit from the first leg, thanks to yet another Stevie Chalmers goal, a place in the semi-final of the European cup looked certain to be decided by a play-off in Rotterdam. With the game in injury time, Celtic won a corner. As he did so often, Billy McNeill rose up above everyone—indeed, some say that he hung in the air for an extraordinary length of time—to head home that vital goal. For those who were at Celtic Park that night, the image of Billy McNeill’s winning goal is probably the most enduring moment of their Celtic-supporting lives. In the decades that followed, no Christmas, new year, wedding, first communion or family funeral could pass without my dad and my uncles reliving or—depending on how much whisky had been consumed—actually attempting to re-enact that goal.
I want to thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate and to let him know that my uncle, Owen McNally, played for Celtic and scored eight goals in one game in 1927. We still have the ball in the house; it is still inflated and still has its laces. Most significantly, however, my next-door neighbour Willie Garner was signed by Celtic from Aberdeen and he scored two goals for Celtic against the opposition. I think that might have been his second-last game. He was signed by the great Billy McNeill, and he remains with us and still admires Billy McNeill to this day. I, too, was at the game against Vojvodina, and those memories will never, ever leave me.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I remember Willie Garner signing for Celtic in the late 1970s.
As we said earlier, the late 1960s were undoubtedly the golden era of Scottish football. As well as Celtic’s European triumph, I think everyone agrees that Scotland replaced England as world champions when they beat them 3-2 at Wembley. Rangers came within a whisker of making Glasgow the first city in Europe to be home to both of the continent’s premier trophies when they lost out in the final of the European cup winner’s cup to Bayern Munich in extra time. Kilmarnock also reached the semi-final of the Fairs cup that season. Of course, Kilmarnock FC are now back in Europe for the first time in 53 years, and I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in congratulating the team, and also my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) on actually making it to his work today.
It can never be underestimated just how important Celtic’s victory and Scotland’s contribution to world football were. Despite everything that Scottish football had achieved, however, much of Europe was still unconvinced and regarded Celtic’s European cup success as a flash in the pan. Even before Billy McNeill had paraded the European cup in Glasgow, the detractors were at work. Claims from Italy and Spain that Celtic’s triumph was a fluke began to circulate, with the Spanish press saying that the European cup belonged in Madrid and that Real, who had narrowly lost out to Inter Milan in the semi-final, were really the best team in Europe.
To prove the point, and to honour the legendary Alfredo Di Stéfano, Real Madrid invited Celtic to play a challenge match at the Bernabéu in June 1967 at which, in front of 120,000 adoring fans, Real Madrid would put the Scottish upstarts firmly in their place. Billy McNeill’s Celtic had other ideas during the match, played with the intensity of a cup final, and the visitors emerged as worthy winners thanks to a Bobby Lennox goal, confirming once and for all that they were indeed the best football team in Europe. Even the Spanish press grudgingly agreed, with MARCA declaring the following morning:
“May the football which Celtic play stay among us.”
My hon. Friend is making a simply fantastic speech, although those of us who are not Celtic fans will have been shocked by the number of late goals that he has recounted. It seems that nothing changes.
To bring that Spanish reference forward to the present day, it speaks to the warmth with which Billy McNeill is regarded that Athletic Bilbao, a club with which neither Billy nor Celtic has any real connection, awarded Billy McNeill its annual “One Club Man” award just three weeks after he died in a touching ceremony at the club’s stadium in the Basque region. Does that not speak volumes about the man’s character?
I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent point. We were all surprised and delighted that Athletic Bilbao recognised Billy McNeill’s achievement in that way.
It is of course undeniable that Celtic were the first UK team to lift Europe’s premier trophy, but it was about much more than that. Celtic under Billy McNeill’s captaincy were the first winners of the European cup to come from outside the European football giants of Spain, Portugal or Italy. In the preceding 11 years of the competition, it had only ever been won by Real Madrid, Benfica, AC Milan and Inter Milan. Celtic, led by Billy McNeill, played football that ushered in a new free-flowing attacking style, which was the antithesis of the stifling catenaccio or “door-bolt” system that was so successfully employed by the Italians throughout the 1960s. That free-flowing, attacking football exemplified by Celtic in 1967 was taken on by the Dutch, the Germans and the English clubs that dominated the competition for the next two decades.
I watched the 1967 European cup final with my late father, who knew a thing or two about football, and my brother, who kept a diary, and the entry for that day says: “I don’t remember watching my dad enjoy a game of football so much as he did today.” My dad was obviously a hoops man through and through, but his hoops were Greenock Morton.
My hon. Friend downplays the fact that his dad was a hugely accomplished professional footballer for Greenock Morton.
As I said earlier, my dad was present at Hampden in 1965 to see the start of the all-conquering McNeill era. In 1975, I was lucky enough to be at Hampden to see the last of his 822 appearances, when Celtic beat Airdrie in the Scottish cup final. On Saturday, a whole new generation of O’Haras and I will be back at Hampden, hoping to see our team complete a remarkable “treble” treble. In the year we lost both Billy McNeill and Stevie Chalmers, it is fitting that the players will be wearing the numbers 5 or 9 on their shorts.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from 1967, is it not a great tribute that the Celtic fans at Parkhead shine their phones like stars every Saturday during the 67th minute?
Yes, absolutely. It makes the hairs on your neck stand up on those big European nights under the floodlights at Celtic Park. It will hopefully inspire a whole new generation of players.
Finally, our condolences go to Billy’s wife Liz, to his children Susan, Carol, Libby, Paula and Martyn and to his eight grandchildren. Scottish football has lost one of its very, very best, because Billy McNeill was not only a lion of a footballer but also a giant of a man.
As the Member with the privilege of representing Celtic Park, I rise to echo the tribute paid to the late, great Billy McNeill by my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), whom I congratulate most sincerely on securing this debate.
For some bizarre reason, there is a strange irony whereby many Scottish MPs do not, in fact, support the club based in their constituency, but I would argue that we are all the richer for that. I declare openly, and perhaps confess, that I am an Airdrieonians supporter. I will return to Billy McNeill’s link to Airdrie in a few moments.
Since being elected as the Member for the east end of Glasgow, I am proud to have had a good relationship with Celtic football club, which is a massive, iconic part of the east end. For those driving along London Road, that towering statue, produced by John McKenna, of Billy holding the European cup aloft is quite a sight to behold, particularly with the thousands of green and white scarves attached to it over the past few weeks.
Following Billy McNeill’s sad passing, it is hard to describe how much of an impact his death and, most importantly, his life have had throughout the city of Glasgow, regardless of people’s age or even which football club they support. As my hon. Friend has already outlined, Billy McNeill will be forever known in history as the first player from these islands to lift the European cup when Celtic triumphed in Lisbon back in 1967.
I would have expected nothing less, but my hon. Friend paid a typically warm and thoughtful tribute to the career and life of Billy McNeill, so I do not intend to repeat much of that. However, when he informed me that he had secured this evening’s debate, he told me—tongue in cheek, I am sure—that I am not allowed to mention Airdrie, a hurdle at which I fell just two paragraphs into my speech.
The link between Billy and Airdrieonians goes back to the Scottish cup final of 3 May 1975 when, unfortunately, Celtic defeated the Diamonds 3-1 at Hampden Park. Following the match, Billy announced his retirement from playing football. It was his 822nd and last appearance for Celtic. Remarkably, in a career spanning so many years, he was never substituted, which is a tremendous achievement for any player. I cannot recall any other player who made that many appearances without being substituted.
As my hon. Friend outlined, Billy went on to have a career in management, with spells at Clyde, Aberdeen, Manchester City, Aston Villa, Hibs and, of course, two spells at the helm of his beloved Hoops. Both on and off the park, Billy made an enormous contribution to the beautiful game, so it is right that so many people from all across the footballing community came together to mourn his passing and remember his life.
And it is not just people of Billy’s generation who wish to mark a life well lived. On Saturday morning, I was at Our Lady of Peace in Barlanark to cheer on St Francis of Assisi Primary School, which went on to win the Billy McNeill memorial cup. It is fitting that the cup was won and retained by a team from the east end of Glasgow. Many of the boys and girls who were playing recognised Billy McNeill’s contribution and seek to emulate it in the years to come.
Tonight, though, has been a fitting tribute to a man who entertained so many and brought so much happiness, as we have heard, particularly to those dearest to him. He will, of course, be sorely missed, but his contribution will never be forgotten, and I am glad that we have had the opportunity tonight to immortalise him in the Chamber and in Hansard. For that, I thank my hon. Friend most sincerely.
I thank the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) for that passionate and moving introduction. I feel his speech may have been written a long time ago, ready to be brought out of the cupboard to pay tribute to his beloved team. Never have I met such a happy minor shareholder, which is a rarity. The wonderful, moving and passionate remarks of the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) and all the interventions are greatly welcomed.
I feel honoured and privileged to respond and pay my own short tribute to Billy McNeill MBE. I remember hearing the sadness in Nicky Campbell’s voice on Radio 5 Live as he announced Billy’s passing and what it meant to him as a Scottish football fan.
At the same time as paying tribute to Billy, we must pay tribute to Stevie Chalmers, who also sadly passed away recently. Stevie, as we have heard, is another great of Scottish football and will always be remembered as the man who scored the winning goal, never to be forgotten, in that final in Lisbon in 1967. Their importance to the history of Scottish football has been underlined rightly by the First Minister of Scotland sending her condolences to both Mr McNeill’s family and to Mr Chalmers’ family.
I would like to use this opportunity to send my best wishes to the families and to pay tribute, on behalf of Members on both sides of the House. In her letter, the First Minister described Mr McNeill as a “legend of the game”. As we have heard, the word “legend” should rightly be reserved for someone who has achieved incredible feats, and there is no argument about the fact that Billy McNeill is not only in this category, but was one of the giants of football. He will be remembered as the first British player to win the European cup. Leading Celtic, he paved the way, showing it was possible to not only compete, but beat the biggest and best in Europe at football. He was truly inspirational, and as we saw, this inspiration spread, with Manchester United, under Sir Matt Busby, following Celtic’s lead and winning the European cup the very next year. Liverpool, Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest and Aberdeen, under another great Scot, Sir Alex Ferguson, and so many of our other clubs, continued to win European trophies in the 1970s and 1980s because of that paving of the way.
As in 1967, we are again celebrating unprecedented British success in European football this season, with the top two European competitions—with new names and different connotations—being exclusively British affairs. On behalf of the Government, my best wishes go to Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea. As tonight shows, we know that European finals are where football legends are truly made, so we have much to look forward to.
When Billy McNeill captained his Celtic team to European glory in 1967, he etched the club’s name in history and made heroes of every player. The “Lions of Lisbon” have left a legacy and will be celebrated forever. We have rightly been reminded that Billy led Celtic during their most successful domestic period in history, with nine successive league titles and numerous cup wins. There is a great similarity with Celtic’s current achievement, with the club having just clinched its eighth consecutive league title and being on course for its third consecutive domestic treble. We of course wish both Celtic and Hearts the very best of luck in Saturday’s Scottish FA cup final—I see some pain etched on some faces.
In modern football, we are full of praise for how Manchester City have managed to defend their title this year, but the achievement of Celtic during the ’60s and ’70s was incredible, particularly given how strong Scottish football was in that period. It was as strong as it ever has been then. As we have heard, not only did Billy’s achievements as a player etch his name into the club’s history, but he then returned to the club as a manager, winning more trophies and truly cementing his place further in the hearts and minds of this mighty club and its great supporters for ever more.
Billy may have been described this evening as a “one-club man”, but some people might disagree; we must not forget his important management of Manchester City, Aston Villa, Clyde and Aberdeen, and those clubs and fans will rightly remember him fondly. He was, by all accounts, a humble man, a caring man and a gentleman. He was a true ambassador for the club and for the whole of Scottish football. Sport provides us with incredible leaders who transcend their achievements on the field and become part of our national memories. My dad would have felt the same about Denis Compton, and I feel the same about Ian Wright and Paula Radcliffe, to name but a few.
It is so important, as we come up to this summer, to look at the opportunity to find our new sporting stars, those who will have the chance to leave their mark and inspire the nation during an amazing summer of sport. Just this weekend, we hosted the taekwondo world championships in Manchester—I was there for the launch. Liverpool will play host to the netball world cup, and we will shortly be enjoying the cricket world cup throughout the country. These events could be the benchmarks for truly inspirational careers for a whole host of the world’s finest sportspeople, once again providing legacies for years to come.
Celtic’s current manager, Neil Lennon, summed up the mood perfectly when he said:
“I love Billy’s statue, which is the first thing you see whenever you walk up The Celtic Way. It’s the perfect image of him, holding aloft the European Cup, and it will remind future generations of supporters of what a great Celtic man he was.”
I am sure everyone in the Chamber will agree that we hope that Scottish football can truly return to such levels of European success—or even to success at the international level, with Steve Clarke’s appointment today as new team manager. Why not? The Scottish women have been leading the way, and they will play England in the world cup this summer, and of course Members from all parties will be joining in the support over in France. I am very much looking forward to that. The game of football remains absolutely as popular as it ever has been. It is full of people who are passionate and knowledgeable about clubs around the world. As the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) reminded me just last week, it is clear that there is much more to come from Scottish football, both men’s and women’s.
Let me sign off, as I started, by thanking the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute and everyone in the Chamber for affording us the chance to spend a little time rightly celebrating the lives of not one but two of Scotland’s greatest footballing heroes. Billy McNeill and Stevie Chalmers serve as great examples of the huge impact that good footballers can have on their club, their communities and their nation. Football is the people’s game, and let us rejoice in the fact that, unlike in other areas and facets of life in which, frankly, we cannot always come together, football allows us to share that passion and those magical moments and gives us memories that truly can last a lifetime, as we have heard this evening.
I have outlined some of the reasons why the Government rightly continue, and must continue, to develop and support new facilities and community programmes to encourage people of all ages to take up our national sport and to make sure that future generations can emulate their heroes and experience the sheer joy of football. Billy McNeill MBE and Stevie Chalmers, with his 236 goals, have rightly been remembered in the Chamber this evening for their achievements and the legacies they created and for reminding us of what is possible if we believe and come together.
Question put and agreed to.