Billy McNeill, MBE
Born: Bellshill, Lanarkshire, 2nd March 1940
30th June 1983 - 22nd September 1986
Billy McNeill was already regarded as an all time great player and manager at Celtic before joining City following relegation in 1983. In 1974 he received the MBE for services to the Scottish game and the following year he retired as a player. Under McNeill’s captaincy the Glasgow club became the first British side to win the European Cup (1967), while his career had also seen him play in twelve Scottish Cup Finals; nine League title-winning sides, nine Scottish League Cup Finals, and he also made 29 full international appearances for Scotland. All in all McNeill’s time at Celtic made him a Scottish legend. The move into management was inevitable.
A brief spell at Clyde was followed by a year at Aberdeen where he signed both Steve Archibald and Gordon Strachan. His Aberdeen side narrowly missed out on the League and the Scottish Cup that year, and some would say he laid the foundations for the success that Aberdeen were later to enjoy under Alex Ferguson.
In May 1978 McNeill took over from Jock Stein at Celtic. Stein, like Busby at United and Mercer at City, was Celtic’s hugely popular and successful manager, but McNeill managed to create a Celtic side in his own image and the side continued to be successful. Then in 1983 City Chairman Peter Swales saw an opportunity to bring him to England following rumours of discontent at Celtic Park. It was an appointment which proved that despite relegation, the Blues were still a major force. McNeill was the biggest name in Scottish football and it was a major coup.
McNeill and his assistant, the former Oldham manager Jimmy Frizzell, were stunned by the state of City’s finances: “City had horrendous debts in the wake of their halcyon spending sprees on players. We could hardly buy a fish supper. Jimmy and I were left with so few players we sat for days on end thinking who we could get for as close to nothing as possible.”
“We pulled players out of our memories. Derek Parlane came on a free transfer from Leeds. Jim Tolmie from Lokeren in Belgium, and Neil McNab from Brighton. I had remembered Tolmie with Morton, but was aware he could also be difficult to handle. We weren’t in a position to be choosy. We got McNab from Brighton, where he had been a bit of a rebel.”
These players were brought in for bargain-basement fees, but each transfer proved inspired demonstrating that McNeill clearly knew how to get value for money. Unfortunately, he was forced to sell the only saleable asset Tommy Caton for around £450,000 to pay off some of the debt and to fund other purchases, most notably the signing of Mick McCarthy for £200,000.
McNeill’s first season brought a few high points but the Blues finished fourth behind Sheffield Wednesday, Chelsea and a Keegan-inspired Newcastle. In the mid-80s the top three sides received automatic promotion. Had the play-offs been in force City might have scraped through, however McNeill knew promotion in 1984 would have been premature.
Promotion came the following season via a 5-1 defeat of Charlton on the last day of the season. The following March McNeill led City out at Wembley for the inaugural Full Members’ Cup Final against Chelsea. Although this was not a major trophy, reaching the final still brought satisfaction, and much needed finances, City’s way.
Unfortunately, McNeill was already feeling frustrated with City’s financial position and other moves behind the scenes. After the opening seven games of the 1986-7 season McNeill shocked City fans by joining Aston Villa. McNeill: “Peter Swales didn’t want me to go and he also thought Villa weren’t right for me. However, upsetting influences in the background at Maine Road weren’t going away.”
City supporters saw McNeill’s move to Villa in an extremely negative manner, and he received tremendous abuse – particularly when City and Villa met in the League in November – and was clearly shaken by it all. The move was a major mistake as Villa were in a similar financial position to City and the ‘interference’ at Villa was later revealed to be greater than that at City. McNeill eventually admitted he should never have left City but at the time he could see no other option.
At the end of the season both Villa and City were relegated. Villa’s relegation was blamed totally on McNeill and resulted in his dismissal, while at Maine Road many also blamed McNeill, but that was unfair as he had only managed the side for seven games, earning seven points. City’s problems came later.
McNeill eventually returned to Celtic and led them to further success, breaking Rangers dominance, and in May 1991 he was dismissed as Celtic manager. He then concentrated on his popular bar, and occasional media work. In 1997 it was revealed that he had successfully undergone through a triple heart bypass operation, and following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, he was seen on national television insisting Scotland rearrange their World Cup fixture planned for the same day as Diana's funeral.
Although McNeill’s time at City is not remembered as a successful period, it should be remembered as a time when his influence ensured City survived and regained some pride. Promotion was achieved because of the miraculous work he did in the transfer market, while he also made use of home grown talent like Paul Simpson and Paul Moulden.
All history and statistical material has been produced based on the research and writing of Manchester football historian Gary James (www.facebook.com/GaryJames4). It is maintained by Ric Turner & Gary James. All text remains the copyright of the original contributors.
Gary's book, Manchester - the City Years: Tracing the Story of Manchester City from the 1860s to the Modern Day, is available to order on Amazon.