Willie O’Neill’s Celtic first game in a Celtic jersey came about in the strangest of circumstances. He has the unusual privilege of having made his Celtic debut in a Scottish Cup final, in the 1961 Scottish Cup final replay, to be exact.
In the first match Celtic had drawn 0-0 with Dunfermline in a disappointing game. Afterwards, Celtic’s left back, Jim Kennedy, had the misfortune to go down with acute appendicitis, which kept him out of the replay. Willie O’Neill was Celtic’s reserve left back and was thrown into the deep end by being selected to replace Kennedy for the replay. Sadly, there was no fairy tale ending as Jock Stein’s Dunfermline side triumphed by 2-0 on a horrible night of wet and windy weather which was said to have been similar to the foul mood of the Celtic fans at the final whistle.
Willie made sporadic appearances for Celtic until the start of the legendary 1966-67 season when he was given an extended run in the side. In October 1966 Willie was a part of a remarkable incident when Celtic won the League Cup against Rangers at Hampden. Before the match, Rangers supporters had thrown balloons on to the pitch and one of them was heading into the goal at the Kings Park end of the ground, where the majority of the Celtic fans where congregated, only for a young boy to bolt from the terracing to kick the balloon round the post to a huge roar from the Celtic supporters.
With only minutes remaining, Celtic were hanging on to a 1-0 lead with Rangers putting them under severe pressure. Rangers’ Alec Smith finally managed to beat Ronnie Simpson with the ball rolling slowly goalwards. In a remarkable coincidence, Willie O’Neill dashed across to clear the ball, just inches from goal, from exactly the same place that the young Celtic fan had cleared the balloon before the match had started. Bobby Lennox was Celtic’s hero with the winning goal but Willie had saved the day with that late clearance.
Unfortunately for Willie, he was dropped after Celtic’s 3-2 defeat at Tannadice on Hogmanay 1966 to allow Tommy Gemmell to revert to left back with Jim Craig coming in at right back. The European Cup winning defence was now in place and sadly for Willie, he was only a spectator in Lisbon in May 1967, when he could easily have been playing had fate been kinder to him.
Only weeks after Lisbon, in June 1967, Celtic were invited to play Real Madrid for the great Alfredo Di Stefano’s testimonial game. This was a great honour and Celtic put their new reputation on the line against the Spanish masters. It’s said that Celtic may have won the European Cup in Lisbon but they truly became European champions when they beat Real 1-0 in the famous Bernabeau stadium. Jock Stein was coy enough not to play his Lisbon eleven, in case of defeat, and Willie was fielded at left half. Many of the Lisbon team still humorously recall the legendary Di Stefano effortlessly nutmegging Willie, much to Willie’s disgust as he prided himself on never having been nutmegged before.
Willie has the honour of being the first Celtic player to appear as a substitute in a cup final when he came on for Bertie Auld in the 5-3 win over Dundee in the League Cup final of October 1967. Days later he was part of the Celtic side which played Racing Club of Argentina in the ill fated World Club championship final in Buenos Aires.
In August 1968 Willie was part of the Celtic side who defeated Rangers home and away in the League Cup but in 1969 he was transferred to Carlisle United where he was said to have been most popular. He had been a Celtic player for ten years and although never a first team regular he was always a most reliable individual when called upon.
Many Celtic fans of the period consider Willie to have been a better defender than Tommy Gemmell. No one would deny Gemmell’s greatness, with his flamboyant overlapping and explosive displays of powerful shooting, and between 1967 and 1970 Tommy was rightly regarded as the best left back in European football. However, Willie was reckoned to have had few peers in the defensive side of the game and it’s a great misfortune that his time at Celtic Park coincided with Tommy Gemmell at his peak.