For a man who played less than 100 games for the club, and was only very briefly for half a season (August – December 1966) considered to be a first team regular, it is odd that Willie O’Neill is still considered a real Celtic hero. And yet when he died in 2011, the Celtic community was plunged into grief for the loss of someone who was considered very much to be one of their own. He was a couple of years with Carlisle United, but struggled with an injury there and in any case, as he himself admitted, his heart was never with him in Carlisle. It never really strayed far from the east end of Glasgow.
He was born in 1940 and joined the club in 1959 from St Anthony’s. He had played for a couple of seasons in the reserves, was generally agreed to be making good progress, but full backs were not really needed at Celtic Park because of Dunky MacKay and Jim Kennedy who were regarded as being one of the better departments of that fast developing 1961 team. But then Destiny summoned Willie O’Neill. Following the Scottish Cup final 0-0 draw with Dunfermline, Jim Kennedy suddenly took ill with appendicitis, (by an odd coincidence, Dunfermline’s Tommy McDonald had gone down with the same complaint before the first game) and O’Neill was summoned. Historians are divided on the wisdom of this choice. The veteran Bertie Peacock had been allowed to go to Italy to play for Northern Ireland. He might have been recalled, John Clark might have then been pushed back to play at left back rather than left half, and Peacock’s experience might have been invaluable against a team managed by his old friend Jock Stein whose mind Bertie knew well.
But O’Neill was given the nod. Not many players are given a Scottish Cup final for a debut, but O’Neill was entrusted with this mighty task. It could not have been said that the 20 year old O’Neill played badly – the deficiencies lay further up the field – but there was to be no “dream come true” story for Willie that night, as Stein’s professional Dunfermline with an inspired and lucky goalkeeper, beat Celtic 2-0. For anyone connected with the club, that night remains an agonising memory for supporters who were at that murky Hampden or who listened to the painful and tantalising radio broadcast.
Willie then disappears for a spell – in and out of the team to cover for injuries and failing to grab the left back spot when Jim Kennedy moved to left half, leaving a vacancy at left back which was filled by Tommy Gemmell rather than Willie. We next really hear of Willie in summer 1966 in the USA. Jim Craig was left behind to do his dentistry exams, Ian Young returned early to Scotland to get married and the only two full backs were Tommy Gemmell and Willie O’Neill, both left backs. But Tommy was willing to try anything and moved to the right where he was also encouraged to move up and “have a go” now and again, while Willie the defensive minded left sided player stayed back. So successful was this move that Stein persevered with it, until a bad day at Tannadice on Hogmanay 1966 made him realise that Tommy Gemmell was really a left back, and that Jim Craig was an excellent right back. Thus, through no real fault of his own, Willie was ousted – with grateful thanks, as it were – but he remained always available, if required.
Mention must be made, of course, of his goal line clearance at Hampden in the League Cup final against Rangers when he appeared from nowhere to save the day, and earned a pat on the head from Ronnie Simpson as the team lined up for the corner kick. It was his only real big Hampden appearance, and one has to wonder what might have happened in 1967 if that one had gone in? Things might have been different.
He was also given a different and unusual job by Jock Stein – that of sitting beside Jimmy Johnstone on aeroplanes to tell him jokes, keep him happy and prevent Jimmy from freaking out because of his fear of flying! Willie had a great sense of humour – very dry and straight faced most of the time – and his talent was needed. No doubt he told the old ones about how he wasn’t really afraid of flying… but crashing really upset him! Or in answer to the questions about how often do these planes crash, “just the once” normally!
It was a shame that he did not play more often, but his contribution to Celtic did not stop when his playing career was over. He worked in Baird’s Bar in the Gallowgate as a barman where he could always be relied upon to cheer everyone up. On one occasion after the team had defeated Rangers, he showered everyone with champagne as they came in the door. Now that doesn’t happen very often to anyone in pubs!
But then again Willie O’Neill was a remarkable man! And a genuine Celt!
Born in 1948, David Potter first saw Celtic at Dens Park, Dundee in March 29. It was a 3-5 defeat, which equipped him admirably for the horrors of the early 1960’s. He had “followed” Celtic for a few years before that and recalls having been called upon to impersonate Jock Stein and receive the family silver teapot which had to do for the Scottish Cup as it was presented on April 24 1954, after he and his father had spent a nerve wracking afternoon listening to the radio! Since then, he has “followed” every Celtic game with bated breath, and has written extensively about the club in magazines and books. His favorite team was that of 1969 (which he rates marginally better than 1967) and his favorite player was Henrik Larsson.
His ambition for Celtic is for them to keep on winning silver in Scotland and to be something in Europe once again. His other interests are cricket and drama. He is 70, a retired teacher of Classical Languages, married with three children and five grandchildren. He now travels on the Joseph Rafferty bus from Kirkcaldy. He also loves Forfar Athletic.
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