Sept 17th 2021: The following s is the Killie-related content of Provan's contribution to a book by Alex Gordon about Billy McNeill, ‘In Praise of Caesar’, which was published in 2018.
It was 43 years ago today he signed for Celtic (and a bit longer since they tapped him up).
I DON’T mind admitting I was shaking life a leaf in a storm when I first met Billy McNeill. It was a Monday morning, September 18 1978 and I will never forget the experience. That was the day I signed for Celtic and putting my scrawl on those transfer forms changed my life forever.
I had bee#ln playing for Kilmarnock as a part-timer, working in a Paisley distillery and training twice a week in the evenings. It wasn’t ideal, but, at the age of twenty-two, I reckoned – and hoped #ln t– the situation would change. I had received favourable press coverage the previous season when I played against Celtic, then managed by the great Jock Stein, in a Scottish Cup-tio#l e and we managed a 1–1 draw at Parkhead.
That was against the odds, but people pointed out you rarely got a second chance against Celtic. Remarkably, we won 1–0 at Rugby Park and it was the first time in decades the Glasgow club had been knocked out of the national competition by a team from a lower division. I had played in my usual position of outside-right in both games, up against the legendary Tommy Burns in the first and John Dowie in the second.
I thought nothing more about it, but Billy McNeill, then manager of Aberdeen, must have taken notice of it. I was still staying with my mum and dad in Gourock when I received a telephone call one evening. The voice on the other end of the line identified himself as a reporter from the Weekly News, a newspaper from the DC Thomson stable that was usually published on a Friday. I presumed he was on for an interview. I was more than happy to get a little bit of publicity.
Not long into the chat, I was asked about the speculation that had been linking me with Celtic. It was fairly well-known my dad was a Rangers supporter and he had taken me to Ibrox most matchdays when I was a youngster. From that point of view, I was then perceived as a fan of the Light Blues. I was asked a straightforward question, ‘Would you be interested in joining Celtic?’ I didn’t hesitate. ‘I’d go to Celtic in a minute,’ I informed the caller.
‘So, you wouldn’t have a problem?’
There was a pause before the ‘journalist’ identified himself. It was John Clark, Billy McNeill’s assistant manager. ‘Just checking, Davie, to make 100 per cent sure.’
And that was that. Everything went quiet until one Sunday when I was out with my pals in Gourock. I received a message instructing me to get home as swiftly as possible. Intrigued? You bet. When I got home I was told to phone Davie Sneddon, the Kilmarnock manager.
‘Celtic have made an offer for you,’ I was informed.
I took a sharp intake of breath.
‘And we have accepted.’
Four words that signalled the end of my part-time football career.
‘What happens next?’ My mind was in a whirl.
‘Get down to Rugby Park tomorrow morning and we’ll drive through to Glasgow. You can meet Billy McNeill and take it from there.’
I didn’t sleep too well that evening. I was so excited at the prospect of joining Celtic, I hadn’t asked the Killie boss how much they had bid for me. How highly did Billy McNeill rate me?
The following day, I discovered he had put in an offer of £125,000 for me. Amazingly, it was a Scottish record transfer fee at the time. One minute, I was a part-timer and the next I was the most expensive player in the country. It was quite a lot to take in during a whirlwind twenty-four hours or so. My life had just performed a 360 degree turn.
So, I walked into the manager’s office at Celtic Park to be greeted with a warm smile and a good, strong handshake from the man who had orchestrated the fairly sensational transformation. Billy McNeill might have detected my nervousness. Could anyone blame me? He put me at ease immediately.
‘We’ve paid good money for you, Davie,’ he said, ‘and I think you will be well worth it.’
What did the Celtic manager expect of his costly purchase?
‘Just keep doing what you were doing at Killie,’ he added. ‘Take on your man, get the ball to the touchline and get your crosses in. I don’t want you to change your style. Play as you have been playing and everything will be fine.’
Immediately, I felt reassured. Billy McNeill could have that effect on any individual. He was the embodiment of Celtic; a dignified aura, a genuine presence and, for me, he ticked all the boxes. I was made to feel at home straight away. That was the first time I actually met Billy, but I had the privilege of sharing a pitch with him before he retired.
It was December 28 1974 and I was eighteen years old and looking forward to playing against Celtic at Rugby Park. They were the reigning champions and I wondered how I would fare against such quality opposition. In goal for the visitors that afternoon was former Kilmarnock teammate Ally Hunter which made the game even more interesting.
Our two main strikers were Eddie Morrison and Ian Fleming and they had scored almost thirty goals between them before the turn of the year. I would like to think a few of them might have come from cross balls from yours truly. I thought I would be up against Jim Brogan, a no-nonsense defender who was also a Scotland international, but I remember Jock Stein brought him in to play alongside Billy and George Connelly in the middle of the rearguard, which must have been some sort of compliment to our front two.
Instead, Tommy Callaghan was moved back from his left-sided midfield berth to slot in at the back. Tommy was one of those players blessed with an engine and a long stride that could see him eat up the pitch as he galloped up and down the flank.
It ended 1–0 with Kenny Dalglish hitting the solitary strike not long before the interval. However, I couldn’t help but notice Big Billy. The referee was an Edinburgh match official by the name of Douglas Ramsey, but I thought the Celtic captain made a reasonable fist of taking care of business in Ayrshire. There were no tantrums or arm-waving, but if he thought someone had been offside, there would be a little glance towards the whistler or his linesman. Six seconds later, as if by magic, the flag would shoot up!
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