I’ve been thinking a lot about football’s soul. Articles, podcasts, phone-ins, pub discussions breaking down stats, tactics, refereeing inconsistencies, fan troubles,restlessly circulate discussion. Occasionally it turns its attention to material history and football’s social conditions; that great forgotten side from that era, that progressive, charity-focussed initiative in that city, but rarely is there much talk about that overwhelming drive humming beneath all the debate, that fierce pathology that provokes billions to not only obsess over the microdetails of a sport that emphatically does not matter compared to even other arbitrary things, but to seamlessly locate the most intimate connection with people we might have zero else in common with other than obsession.
There is an unfathomably powerful soul that unites us, binds us, close to a secular religiosity. The soul represents mutual euphoria, as Tom Rogic dinks it in the last minute against Aberdeen to coronate the unbeaten treble. Or it can be mutual loss, as a legend passes.
My granda gave me a photo of Billy McNeill hoisting the European Cup for my bedside before I could crawl, with my dad’s natural encouragement. Before I ever attended Celtic Park I was showered in both my granda and dad’s shared memory of and veneration towards Celtic. VHS tapes of the full 1967 European Cup final, or documentaries on the Quality Street Gang or the centenary season. Toddler-sized kits, Celtic toys, miniature clover-adorned footballs.
Most importantly were the oral histories; the stories of players, managers, games, trophies; but also of my dad kicking a deflated ball about with other boys outside the pub on Saturday evenings as my granda and his pals dug into hard-worn post-match analysis and pints inside, of being lifted over the barriers by strangers, of seeing Celtic players in Sunday mass.
Then there’s the stories of Celtic ideals, my granda and dad explaining to me the value of charity, community, empathy, loyalty, faith – both religious and secular. It sounds facetious describing these as Celtic principles given they’re basic moral principles the majority of all football fans conform to, but I, individually, was taught them as inextricable from supporting Celtic; the good Celtic fan cares about the poor and the vulnerable as well as the football team.
The official histories merge with the personal and the moral, inherited from one generation to another, and we feel somehow present and participatory in these histories, as if we really were there in Lisbon, as if we have really met Brother Walfrid. This is Celtic’s soul, and we all contribute towards, and earn from, its power.
McNeill is at its epicentre, the lifeblood of Celtic.
Everyone recognises the image of him lifting that cup, or his leading Celtic out onto the field at the Estádio Nacional, or smile when discussing his winning the centenary season – even if they weren’t born yet. Everyone has a personal memory of him making a vital last-minute challenge, scoring a rare header, or giving an erudite, heartfelt interview in his elderly years. And everyone associates him with the platonic ideal of what Celtic, and football, should morally aspire to; not a sport, but an extension of and service to society, an outlet for Being A Fundamentally Good Person where the playing of football is merely the surface level of its potential. This, for all the swathes of towering historical achievements, remained perhaps his most universally appreciated quality, his renown as a fundamentally kind, thoughtful, funny, good person.
Against the sweeping financialisation of modern football, mourning for McNeill feels like mourning for a halcyon past, where one role model could embody a football club, a fanbase, and an entire community; but that’s a comment for a different time.
“More than a club” often feels like a trite marketing ploy that exploits Celtic’s communitarian and charity roots, but it still holds resonance with fans because it still *means something*. We are more than a club, more than a company, more than a fanbase, there is instinctively an elusive connection, a soul, we feel between each other.
In a way I adored Billy McNeill before I ever knew who he was, because what he represented and signified was shaping how I understood the world, and moulding the person I was becoming, an avatar through my dad and granda’s development of me. I imagine this is true of every Celtic fan. Generations of families in Scotland and across the world passing on their inherited Celtic history, with Billy McNeill as the heartbeat.
The yawning grief we feel is because McNeill was more than an elusive connection, more than an unfathomable collective; he was real. The breathing, living, glowing personification of more than a club, more than football, more than our everyday, someone we could truly identify with. He was a great footballer, an imperious captain, a phenomenal manager; but more importantly he was a good person, and a humble Celtic fan.
Our collective soul aches for the loss of the best of us.