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Cesar fears the worst

He is the shining symbol of Celtic's finest hour, yet Billy McNeill fears the club he played for and managed with such distinction may never be major players on the biggest stage again.

The captain of Celtic's legendary 1967 European Cup winning side has passed his judgement after Martin O'Neill's men failed to pick up a solitary point in their first three Champions League games this season and after years of 'punching above their weight', the reality that the football world is moving on without Celtic has hit home.

After years of defying the odds against the cream of European talent, the 3-0 Champions League reverse against Shakhtar Donesk last week was the final nail in a coffin that O'Neill has been eluding for some time. Add in defeats against Barcelona and AC Milan and their European challenge is over before it even began for another year.

McNeill believes O'Neill's departure may have moved a giant step closer and he sees only one solution to a crisis that has been gripping Scottish football for many a year.

'The Scottish league will never generate enough finance to allow a club like Celtic to realise its potential,' begins McNeill, who won a domestic Double as Celtic manager in 1988. 'It has been the same old story for so many years now, dating back to the days when I was manager at the club.

'No Celtic manager in the modern era has had the resources to genuinely compete at European level and I don't see that changing in the near future. We all know about the fantastic support around the world for the club, but it won't count for anything as long as the current financial set-up is in place.

'The only solution is a move to another league. The Premiership would be the obvious choice, but I don't see the English clubs welcoming Celtic and Rangers into their set-up in the near future. You don't need to tell me about the size and importance of Celtic in the lives of so many people, but if you suggest they can genuinely compete with Manchester United or Barcelona in the current setup, I'd have to disagree.'

No Celtic manager in the modern era has had the resources to genuinely compete at European level and I don't see that changing in the near future.
Billy McNeill

The goals of Henrik Larsson and the managerial brilliance of O'Neill has papered over the cracks in the Celtic empire for some time. With their super Swedish striker gone, O'Neill's magic hat may have run out of rabbit and in a season when his relatively small squad have been depleted by injuries, his task has been close to mission impossible.

By beating the familiar suspects in the Scottish Premier League in the first few weeks of the campaign, the Bhoys have maintained their winning habit to an extent, but the shock home defeat against Aberdeen earlier this week suggests they may even be losing their touch on home soil.

McNeill is quick to hail the achievements of O'Neill in bringing title glory and UEFA Cup success to Celtic, but he fears the former Leicester manager may have taken the Glasgow giants as far as he can.

'The television money the English teams generate is in a different world to what Celtic have been working with in the last few years,' he continues. 'Martin has done a remarkable job with the resources he has at his disposal, but he can only take it so far.

'It's not for me to say what Martin should do with his career, but people will start to talk about his future again now. He must be frustrated that he cannot move the club beyond where their current level.

'What he has done is bring back some credibility to the club. When I was at Celtic as a player, we were one of the giants of European football and teams were genuinely frightened about playing us. By reaching the UEFA Cup Final a couple of years back and doing well in the competition last season, Celtic have put themselves back on the map again, but you wonder how far they can go.

Billy McNeill fears his old club can never repeat the heights he himself achieved in 1967.
Billy McNeill fears his old club can never repeat the heights he himself achieved in 1967.
'The ideal time to strengthen the squad came at the end of last season. He will have known where he needed boosting and if he had the finances to do that, there would have been a real prospect of Celtic doing well in Europe this time around.

'Martin didn't get that financial support, but I wouldn't point too many fingers at the current board. If the money is not being generated in Scottish football, they cannot give Martin what he needs. It's a fact of life.'

In McNeill's days at Parkhead boss, the transfer kitty at Parkhead was minimal at best. So much so that some joked he could have kept all the cash at his disposal in a biscuit tin under his desk and he suggests the current manager has had a better level of support that he enjoyed.

'Martin has been fortunate enough to be able to hang onto the handful of star players he has at the club,' he says. 'Henrik Larsson, Chris Sutton, Neil Lennon and a few more I could mention may have been tempted to move on a long time ago in years gone by, but they can now pay the wages to keep these players at the club and that is progress of sorts.'

McNeill is currently promoting his autobiography, Hail Cesar, and the emotive image of him hoisting the European Cup aloft on the front cover looks unlikely to be repeated by any Celtic captain in the near future. 'They may not be major challengers for the Champions League, but it should not take anything away from what remains a great club,' he adds.

'Celtic have a worldwide appeal and that will never change. From Ireland to America, you will find Celtic fans in every corner. It's a club that creates stories and has a great spirit, so I am sure there will be other books like mine in the years to come. You just have to see the reaction I have had on this book tour to realise how must passion there is for this football club. It will never die.'


Billy McNeill's autobiography, Hail Cesar, is available in all good outlets.

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