Football/Soccer

I was honoured to play for the late Billy McNeill says former Celtic defender Anton Rogan

Celtic's European Cup winning captain Billy McNeill unveils his statue outside Celtic Park in 2015
Andy Watters

WHEN Billy McNeill told him to jump during their days together at Celtic, Anton Rogan had one question: ‘How high?’ .

The Belfast man, who was a fixture at left-back on McNeill’s double-winning Celtic centenary year side in the 1987/88 season, described the Hoops legend who passed away yesterday aged 79, as “a great person, a great man”.

Rogan had been aware that McNeill was suffering from dementia but news of his death came as a shock to him yesterday morning.

“I had heard he was ill but I wasn’t expecting to hear this, it was terrible news,” he said.

“He was a great man, a fantastic bloke.”

The Northern Ireland international was signed from Distillery by David Hay in 1986 and first met McNeill when he was appointed manager for the 1987/88 season.

“My first impression of him would still be my last impression of him – when he walked into the changing room everybody perked up,” said Rogan.

“In other words, we all s**t ourselves! He was great for me and the younger ones in the team because he looked after us, he was a proper gentleman and we had so much respect for him, everybody had. We were frightened of him but in a nice way. If he said ‘jump’ I’d be saying: ‘How high?’

“He was a great man, a lovely man, really very pleasant to be around, his company was always good. “When it came to the football there was a serious side but when we had time to relax and take time out he was just great to be with.

“I’ll always have fond memories of him as a great person, a great man.”

As a player, Glasgow-born McNeill played almost 800 games for the Hoops during a career that lasted from 1957 until his retirement in 1975. 

His crowning glory came in 1967 when the man known as ‘Cesar’ captained Celtic to victory over Inter Milan in the European Cup final.

“He will always be a true Celtic legend,” said Rogan.

“When you look at the statue of him outside the ground you remember what he achieved for Celtic. As Jock Stein once said: ‘You knew when Billy was in the dressing room that things would be okay’. He was one of those people who got everybody around him going.”

McNeill had two spells as Celtic manager and the league and cup double during the club’s centenary year was an unforgettable roller-coaster ride that included a series of dramatic late winners in close games.

“Everybody always says that team was never-say-die but it was Billy who pushed us forward in the centenary year,” said Rogan.

“There were games that year when we looked like we were dead and buried but we always seemed to come back and he enshrined that in us and got a little bit more out of us.

“Sometimes that season it looked like we weren’t going to get the results but we always pulled something out of the bag and a lot of that was down to Billy pushing us on, coming in and saying: ‘Look, we can do this’.

“There were games when we were 1-0 down with a couple of minutes to go and won 2-1. It was daft at times! 

“That’s what makes a good team and it was a great time to be with the club.

“It was a great year for us and a great year for him as manager – he was the captain of the Lisbon Lions and then, in the centenary year, he was the manager, it’s fitting that he has both those accolades and it’s no coincidence either.

“I’m honoured that I was involved with him at some stage in the club.”

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