When the managerial merry-go-round starts spinning, timing is often the key to
who goes where in the final reckoning. Such was the case in May, 1978. Willie
Ormond had relinquished the Scotland job to return to club football with Hearts
and the Dons were left high and dry when the SFA stepped in to tempt Ally McLeod
with the national team post.
The Aberdeen board looked carefully at the potential replacements and raised
a few eyebrows by appointing former Celtic skipper Billy McNeill as the ninth
manager in the history of Aberdeen Football Club. Almost all the candidates,
such as Bertie Auld and Alex Stuart, had bags more experience as a manager than
McNeill but there can be little doubt that it was Billy’s pedigree as a
motivator and leader that got him the nod over the other candidates.
A native of Bellshill, Lanark shire, Billy McNeill began his football career
with junior outfit Balantyre Victoria, before moving as a 17-year-old to Celtic
for a £250 fee in August, 1957. At Parkhead Billy developed into a commanding
centre-half and when Jock Stein took over the reigns at Celtic Park young McNeill
became the rock at the heart of the side that Stein moulded into the ‘Lisbon
Lions’. His natural flair for leadership made him an obvious choice for
skipper. At international level young Billy had the unhappy experience of gaining
his first full cap in Scotland’s 9-3 humiliation at Wembley in 1961 but
he survived that nightmare to win a total of 29 caps.
He was named Scottish Player of the Year in 1965 and went on to win international
fame by leading the Parkhead side to their 1967 European Cup success. Over
the late 1960s and early 1970s as Celtic dominated the Scottish domestic
scene, McNeill amasses an amazing haul on nine League Championship medals,
seven Scottish Cup winners’ medals and seven League Cup winners’ medals,
not to mention eight assorted gongs as a runner-up.
In 1974 Billy made an MBE for his services to football and a year later,
with over 800 appearances for Celtic under his belt, McNeill retired from
the game. After almost two full years away from football Billy was tempted
back into the game with an offer of the manager’s job at Clyde. He
had spent barely two months at Shawfield before Aberdeen stepped in with
their surprise offer to take him to Pittodrie.
At Pittodrie, McNeill had a hard act to follow. Ally McLeod had built a great
rapport with the fans, brought tangible success to the club in the form of
the 1976-77 League cup and had promised more to come. The transfer to Leeds
of another fan favourite, Arthur Graham, within weeks of McNeill’s arrival,
was hardly calculated to win over the doubters but a superb 3-1 win over Rangers
at Pittodrie in McNeill’s first competitive game in charge emphasised
Billy’s talents as a motivator, and those who doubted the manager’s
credentials were won over.
The Dons had the look of serious title challengers from day one under McNeill
and the only blemish on a great start to the season was a disastrous 6-1 loss
to Rangers in a League Cup third-round first leg tie at Ibrox that kicked off
a bleak October run. The new boss saw little reason to change the solid defences
he had inherited from Ally McLeod but he wasn’t so happy with the midfield
In November 1977 Billy McNeill pulled off perhaps the biggest signing coup
in Scottish football history when he signed Gordon Strachan from Dundee in
a deal that saw the Dens Park side get Dons midfielder Jim Shirra and a moderate
cash settlement. On Christmas Eve, 1977 the Dons kept their title hopes alive
by demolishing champions Rangers 4-0 at Pittodrie with a superb display that
sadly wasn’t captured by the TV cameras and from that game on set out
on a superb unbeaten run that took them to within two wins of an unprecedented
League and Cup double.
Clyde striker Steve Archibald, who had impressed McNeill during his brief
spell at Shawfield, was signed in early 1978 and he immediately formed a likely
looking partnership with the great Joe Harper. Unfortunately for the Dons and
Billy McNeill their change for the title began perhaps a game too late. Rangers
managed to stay just tantalisingly out of reach at the top of the table and
the Dons ran out of games with Rangers still at the top. A week later the Dons
faced the Ibrox side in their first Scottish Cup Final in eight years but,
famously, Aberdeen froze on the day and a season that had promised so much
ended in disappointment.
Further disappointment lay just down the road when events at Parkhead took
an ominous turn and Jock Stein left Parkhead for Leeds in May, 1978. It was
no surprise when Celtic approached the former skipper, Billy McNeill, to step
in as Stein’s successor. It was a tribute to Aberdeen as both a football
club and a city, that McNeill agonised over his decision before finally heading
home to Celtic Park.
Incredibly for the second time in 12 months the Dons had fallen to circumstances
beyond their control and lost a manager of immense potential. Billy McNeill
enjoyed a measure of success at Parkhead as Celtic manager but left for Manchester
City in 1982 after a dispute within the Celtic board. At Maine Road he experienced
the highs and lows of promotion and relegation before taking over at Aston
Villa early in the 1986-87 season. Villa finished that season in Division 2
and Billy found himself out of a job. Within days of leaving Villa, in an amazing
turn-around in fortunes, McNeill suddenly found himself back at Parkhead as
Celtic manager following the departure of previous incumbent Davie Hay. McNeill’s
second spell in the Parkhead hot seat lasted until 1991 when he was replaced
by Liam Brady.