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Billy Neill

Name: William Neill
Born: 1929, Belfast
Died: 28 October 1997, Belfast
Height: 5.11 ft
Weight: 11.06 st
Position: Right-Back

Representative Honours: Ireland: Junior Caps; Irish League: 14 Caps (1952-1959); Irish FA: Representative (1953-1958).
Club Honours: (with Glentoran) Irish League Champion 1952/53; Irish Cup Runner-Up 1951/52, 1953/54, 1955/56; Gold Cup Winner 1951/52, 1960/61; City Cup Winner 1952/53, 1956/57; Ulster Cup Winner 1952/53; Co. Antrim Shield Winner 1951/52, 1956/57.
Awards: Ulster Footballer of the Year 1960.

Club Career:
FA Cup

In the immediate post-war era Jimmy Geary brought a plethora of young talent to Glentoran via the Co-op Rec. (then the Glens’ Third team). Billy Bingham and Jimmy McIlroy went on to great things in the Football League and on the World Stage; Billy Neill however spent his entire playing career at the Oval, and stayed on as coach and manager. Shore Road born Neill had his footballing apprenticeship in the Boys’ Brigade, crediting the organisation with character building qualities. Indeed, he maintained a life-long affinity with the BB and its aims.

The role of Glentoran wing-half was always something of a charmed position. The presence Clancy McDermott, Danny Blanchflower and Frank Mulholland all had a hand in ensuring that Neill was not given a premature break in the first eleven. When his chance did come in the 1950/51 season he played little more than a supporting role as four trophies were won. Early in the following season he took the place of Middlesbrough bound Mulholland permanently at right-half, holding onto it for the next twelve years. Praised for his early “competent” displays, by the seasons end he had more than proved his merit and claimed both Gold Cup and Co. Antrim Shield winner’s medals. He managed his first goal to take a weakened Glens team to an Irish Cup semi-final second replay against Linfield. It took four games to settle that semi in Glentoran’s favour, and set up a Final match against unfancied Ards. The Peninsula team put in a superb performance to claim the Cup, in fact the 1-0 scoreline flattering Glentoran. Neill would play in a total of seven Irish Cup Final matches (encompassing three tournaments) in his long career, and never finish on a winning side.

In the 1952/53 campaign Neill really hit his stride in senior football. His goal in the opening match of the season, a 4-1 win over Coleraine, set Glentoran on the way to lifting the Ulster Cup. The City Cup soon followed in convincing fashion too and in May the Gibson Cup arrived at the Oval for the second time in three years. The season also brought Neill his first major representative honours. In September he played in the Irish league side defeated 5-1 by the Scottish League at Windsor Park – he was to remain a regular selection for much of the ‘fifties. Then, in May, he joined Glens teammate Sammy Hughes in the Irish FA party that toured Canada and the USA. The nearest he came to full international honours was as reserve for the 1952 Home Nations clash with England at Windsor Park.

As the 1950s continued Glentoran fell away from contention for the major honours. Irish Cup Finals were lost and Mercer Cup wins were celebrated in the absence of any more prestigious honours. It wasn’t until the 1956/76 season that any real success arrived back at the Oval, although for Neill it proved a difficult campaign as he suffered a fractured ankle in an early-season clash with Linfield. His spring return coincided with an upturn in the Glens’ fortunes, Neill bagging a rare two goals in a 7-2 League defeat of Ballymena on the way to third place respectability. The good form had arrived at just the right time, Glentoran claiming both the Co. Antrim Shield and City Cup via Final and Test Match defeats of Distillery. In a season of highs-and-lows Billy Neill and Sammy Hughes were awarded a joint benefit game against Everton.

The successes of May 1957 proved a false-dawn as Glentoran lost their manager that summer. The 1957/58 campaign brought only a mere sniff of a trophy, Glentoran losing the Ulster Cup Final replay 4-1 to Distillery, but it did see Neill awarded the inaugural Glentoran Player of the Year trophy. The following term Neill continued to impress in an average side, his ball control, tackling and intelligent accurate passing all praised. A rare moment of glory arrived with a Gold Cup semi-final win over Linfield, the first Glens win in a “Big-Two” clash for five years. In the final the Glentoran fans were again disappointed as the favourites lost out, against the run of play, 1-0 to Coleraine. In October 1958 Neill was again proved as among the most highly regarded players in the Irish League as he was named captain of an Irish FA XI for a match against South Africa, though the Africans ran out 5-2 winners. At the end of the season, with Glentoran empty-handed, a shake-up of the club’s coaching arrangements was announced, Neill given responsibility for the younger players.

The 1959/60 season looked to be heading for disaster early on for Glentoran. A run of eight games without a win put paid to any hopes in the Ulster Cup, Gold Cup and City Cup, in fact the only non-defeat was a 3-3 draw with Linfield at Windsor. Mid-season however the team clicked, embarking on their best League campaign in years. Eventually, with Neill putting in performances meriting Ulster Player of the Year status, the Glens finished runners-up, three points behind Glenavon in the race for the Gibson Cup.

Through the early-sixties Neill continued as an experienced head in an inexperienced team. Another trophy was finally claimed with a 4-2 Gold Cup Final win over Linfield in May 1961. Europe was tackled by the club for the first time in 1962 courtesy of entry into the Fairs Cup where Neill proving even experience was not enough to deal with the raw talent of Spanish giants Real Zaragoza – the 2-6 scoreline perhaps kind on the Glens. After 474 appearances – the seventh most of any Glens player – Neill hung-up his boots in 1963. He was appointed assistant-manager, and in three separate spells through the later ‘sixties would take charge of the team. In 1966 he finally got his hands on an Irish Cup winner’s medal, Glens’ ‘keeper Albert Finlay handing his to his boss. As manager of the Northern Ireland Amateur team he led them to the Amateur International Championship, England, Scotland and Wales all defeated, all away from home (due to the troubles).

Throughout his playing days and until his retirement in 1989, Billy Neill worked as a plater in the shipyard. Through the 1980s and 1990s he acted as a liaison with Northern Ireland managers Billy Bingham and Bryan Hamilton, assessing Irish League players’ international prospects. Neill was also an active fund-raiser for many local charities, particularly in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Showbusiness Club. In the 1996 Queen’s Birthday Honours list he was made an MBE, but due to ill-health was unable to travel to Buckingham Palace to accept his award. Sadly Billy Neill passed away in 1997; he is suitably remembered through the Billy Neill Centre of Excellence and Playing Fields, opened in Dundonald in 2001.

Irish League Representative Appearance Details:


Anonymous said…
Hi Im John Neill from Australia a cousin of Billy. I last seen Billy in 1994 when i went home for my dads funeral. He took me to a game Crusaders v Linfield from memory Linfield won 3.1.Billy was then a committee member of Crusaders. Your artical was very well put together and gave me a great thrill to read it. I am going home to belfast in March and looking forward to seeing a few games.
Thank again
John Neill
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