By Alec Ross
“All through the story the immigrants came The Gael and the Pict, the Angle and Dane From Pakistan, England and from the Ukraine We’re all Scotland’s story and we’re all worth the same” (The Proclaimers)
The passing of a great – perhaps the greatest – Scottish footballer feels significant, and not just because another important link to a golden age for our national game has been lost. For amongst the countless heartfelt and generous tributes to a great footballer and a classy, humble and polite human being, there was this wee gem.
Billy McNeill was the grandson of Lithuanian immigrants.
Scotland, said William McIlvanney, is a proudly mongrel nation.
Imagine if the Scotland of “Cesar’s”ancestors was like the Scotland that the poisonously xenophobic UK government would have us be. No Billy McNeill. No pioneering European Cup win to make a whole country proud and hopeful and a wee bit more confident.
The image of Billy McNeill proudly holding the European Cup is in my mind as much a symbol of the sixties as Ali beating Liston or a young John F Kennedy reaching the Whitehouse.
Without a tolerant and enlightened attitude, Scotland would have been denied one of its greatest sons and most brilliant ambassadors. It would have been denied the hope brought by a group of pals born within a thirty mile radius of each other who became the first team from Northern Europe, far less Scotland, to win football’s greatest club trophy in a manner both gallus and humble.
“We did it by playing football”, said the manager, Jock Stein. “Pure, beautiful, inventive football”.
What a time it must have been to be alive.
It works both ways. I’ve always been fascinated with the diaspora that saw Scots living all over the planet. To give just one wee example, it wasn’t so long ago that there was a mayor of Warsaw whose name was Alexander Chalmers. His people came from Dyce, Aberdeenshire. I’ve often wondered if our more enlightened and welcoming approach to immigration is the product of this history. Maybe when you’ve travelled to the ends of the Earth you are less fearful when the teeming masses reach your ain shores.
We cannot be complacent though. It falls on all of us to ensure that, by whatever means possible, Scotland remains a place where people of all nations feel welcome when they afford us the privilege of making this land their home.
Billy McNeill’s story is Scotland’s story.
Oh, and finally, the word “legend” is often devalued from its use to describe fairly ordinary footballers who have simply been at a certain club for a while. In this case, the word is wholly inadequate.
What. A. Man
Billy McNeill 2.03.1940 – 22.04 2019