The greatest tribute we could pay Billy McNeill, as a club, above and beyond the things we’ve already done, is to use his life and his career as something that inspires those who come up after him. As such, I don’t believe that retiring his team number is the right thing to do.
I understand those who would argue that it’s a fitting memorial, but I respectfully disagree.
There are clubs who have retired shirt numbers before, but I’ve never understood it.
Indeed, I’ve often taken a harsh view of it, such as when Larsson left and people suggested that it was time to retire the number seven. To me that was like a declaration that we’d never see his like again, an admission of defeat in some ways.
Since he left I’ve seen that shirt drown wearers under the pressure of trying to live up to it, but that’s no reason for giving up on the idea.
This suggestion is different of course; it comes from a sincere desire to honour one of the greatest men in the history of the club. The idea is being proposed for all the right reasons; still, it nags at me because that shirt can be the inspiration that drives someone on to be even better than they dreamed they could be.
It will forever more be a shirt that confers responsibility on the wearer, one he feels he has to grow into.
I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
Because it means a certain mentality has to be cultivated around that jersey, and it should have been before now.
Why would that be a negative?
Every wearer of it should be conscious of what – and who – the shirt represents.
Every wearer should be encouraged to do better, and work harder, as a result.
Football is full of ghosts.
Every club which ever lost an icon feels his presence around the place.
Every club’s supporters wonder if he’ll ever be replaced.
When Jinky stopped playing football we didn’t retire his number; whether we knew it or not we were just waiting for Larsson to come along and fill it. We may never again have a European Cup winning captain, but we have to hope for one, we have to reach for that goal even if it proves impossible.
We will, again, have captains who are worthy of the jersey.
Somewhere, there’s a young kid dreaming of making that number his own, someone who’s been born into this Family and understands what a great privilege and honour it would be to wear it, someone who uses that shirt as the engine to drive him on.
We should keep that dream alive, we should allow that kid his ambition, because nothing would do McNeill a greater honour than to have some future player dedicate everything he accomplishes to the great man’s memory, to say that Billy inspired him at every step on the journey.
The thing about an icon is that his legend never diminishes.
Instead, it grows by providing the impetus for those who come after him.
Whilst I understand and respect those who have called for us to retire the number, I think it can be used as an inspiration to those who wear it.