A FRIEND of mine, a Celtic fan since she was knee-high to Jimmy Johnstone, logged onto her office computer yesterday morning. The very first news item that came up was the death of Billy McNeill, her hero.

In front of her colleagues, she burst into years. She knew McNeill had been suffering from dementia for nine years but his death still came as an awful shock.

She’d been lucky to meet McNeill once or twice, and every detail of those encounters was etched into her memory.

Another Celtic fan I know, who’d met McNeill at, I think, a Celtic function, put it succinctly. “It’s like losing family,” he said.

Back in September 2004 – and I’m stunned that this was all of 15 years ago – I met McNeill in the foyer of a Glasgow city centre restaurant. His autobiography, Hail Cesar, was about to be published.

His 65th birthday might have been a matter of months away, but I remember he still cut an impressive figure: ramrod-straight back, immaculately dressed, still a formidable presence. “That’s Billy McNeill!” one man whispered to his wife as Cesar walked past their table. I can still see the man’s fork paused, hovering just above his plate.

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Billy was walking with a limp. He said he had promised himself that he would eventually have an operation to deal with it. He was not a stranger to hospitals: he had open-heart surgery in 1997, but within a few days he was jogging around the hospital corridors, causing papers to blow off the desks as he passed.

Over the next 40 minutes or so – I wish we could say one of us had ordered Caesar salad for lunch, but that wouldn’t be truthful – the ex-Celtic captain and manager spoke of many things.

That nickname, for example – “I’ve read all sorts of rubbish about Julius Caesar, about my being an imperious sort of player. It came from 1960 when a gang of us went to see the Ocean’s Eleven film. One of its stars was Cesar Romero. As I was the only one with a car, one of the guys decided I suited the Romero role, and that’s how the name stuck.”

I asked him about players’ wages – the top English players back then seemed to receive colossal amounts of money. (I’ve often wondered how he would view the truly astonishing sums that the top players earn now).

“You often see criticism of these guys’ salaries, but there are so many professions nowadays in which people are indecently paid, and I honestly don’t think footballers are bad in comparison,” he said. “Some people are paid a million pounds to read the news on TV.

“Footballers are different. They are stars in their own right, and give people enormous entertainment. Football has become a more prominent part of society as well.

“Maybe the pay pendulum has swung too far in one direction, but it always takes time before the whole thing is corrected.

“I do think, however, that we were unfairly treated in our day. We had no freedom of movement, no right to say ‘I want away’. We saw very little of the income that the club raked in.”

He praised Jock Stein, Celtic’s manager: “Big Jock was ahead of his time in so many ways. He revolutionised Celtic, and maybe Scottish football as well. If it hadn’t been for him, the Celtic of today would not exist.”

His own career highlight, of course, occurred on May 25, 1967. Lisbon’s Estadio Nacional: the European Cup final. Celtic 2, Inter Milan 1. The day when Celtic became immortal.

“If I could turn back the clock, it would be to have all the Lions collect the cup that night, not just me,” he said now.

“When the fans invaded the pitch to celebrate, the team was shepherded into the dressing room. That left just me and assistant manager Sean Fallon to be presented with the cup, to my dismay.

“Winning it wasn’t a personal thing. It was a collective thing. That victory was the biggest thing I’ve ever achieved, but it was only much later before we appreciated just how big it was. Even today, fans talk to you about it, and you realise that Lisbon has passed into folklore.

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“It’s terrific,” he added, “that people still point you out and tell their kids ‘See that man there ...?’ I don’t know how often a wee boy has looked at me and wondered who this old man was. But then their parents mention the European Cup, and you become a Lisbon Lion all over again.”

As he spoke, a copy of the autobiography lay between us. Now and then my gaze fell on the familiar image on the front – the athletic figure of McNeill, in his prime of life: his arms raised aloft, his hands clutching the hard-earned, thoroughly deserved, European Cup. I sneaked a glance at his hands, now quietly busy with a knife and fork, and thought of how those hands held so much silverware in their time.

At Celtic alone there were nine Scottish League championships, seven Scottish Cups, and six Scottish League Cups.

I also thought back to the times when I had seen McNeill and his vintage Celtic side take on my own team at home at their trim little ground, back during my school years, and to the sense of pre-match dread that settled over me whenever Celtic (or Rangers, for that matter) came to town. Players like McNeill symbolised an indomitable spirit, a clever and aggressive style of play. It was very difficult to not admire them, even when they had just run your own team off the park.

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In the interview we spoke about his later ventures into management – Clyde, Aberdeen, Celtic, Manchester City, Aston Villa, Celtic again, and a very brief moment as caretaker at Hibs. Not every spell ended as happily as he would have wished, but in Scotland at least there were lots of further honours, especially at Celtic, and especially the epic successes of the club’s centenary year in 1988.

Despite all the adulation and the triumphs he achieved as a player, he said he had been careful never to take too much of it home.

“At home I’ve never been ‘Billy McNeill the footballer’. I always aimed to be just ‘Billy McNeill, a father to my kids’. And today I’m just a grandfather to my grandchildren, not a legend.”

I’d been slightly apprehensive, beforehand, about meeting Cesar. This, after all, was a man who had seen it all and done it all, who had in his time been adored unconditionally by thousands upon thousands of Celtic fans, and who had a lifetime’s experience of dealing with the media.

It was also clear that he carried with him a sort of natural authority. No wonder so many players looked up to him – and to him.

In the event, I needn’t have worried. He couldn’t have been friendlier, more genuine.

The conversation went well but, all too soon, it was over. And as we prepared to leave, the diner who’d exclaimed “It’s Billy McNeill!” was still casting an awed glance in his direction.

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