Cooney and Black

I spent a night in the company of a legend – Thomas Hearns – but preferred sharing a table with the heroes of my youth – Billy McNeill, Bertie Auld and Davie Wilson.

Billy McNeill


IT’S been my good fortune in a career spanning more than 40 years to have met a whole host of sports personalities, ranging from “The Greatest”, Muhammad Ali, to the man generally regarded as the finest footballer the world has ever seen, Pele.

Hopefully I will continue to enjoy that privilege for some time to come. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that heroes and legends are necessarily one and the same.
The dictionary defines a hero thus: a person of distinguished courage or ability greatly admired for their brave deeds or noble qualities.

A legend is described as a famous or important person who is known for doing something extremely well.

Last month, at the St Andrew’s Sporting Club, in Glasgow, I spent an evening in the company of three of my heroes and a legend.

Thomas Hearns is a sporting legend. The now 56-year-old American, known famously as the Hitman, was the first boxer in history to win world titles in four divisions. He was also the first fighter to win five world titles in five different divisions, easily qualifying as a legend of the ring.

But I preferred sharing a table with a trio of sporting heroes from my youth. I refer to Billy McNeill, Bertie Auld and Davie Wilson.
Now all well into their 70s, these ex-Old Firm stars retain an almost mystical quality which, in my opinion, is missing from Hearns’ DNA.

I sensed the atmosphere at the Radisson Hotel was more one of curiosity rather than of awe when Hearns made his entry. Perhaps it had something to do with those who wished to be photographed alongside Hearns being charged for the privilege.

There is nothing wrong with that, of course. Why wouldn’t Hearns cash-in on his status as a great champion? Wouldn’t most of us?

However, it cost nothing to have a picture taken with Billy, Bertie or Davie. Indeed, all were delighted to even be asked. Whereas Hearns came across as almost untouchable, the aforementioned remain men of the people in the truest sense.

Maybe I am biased. But a warm handshake from Billy, a hug from Bertie, and a huge smile and a pat on the back from Davie meant an awful lot – much more than if Hearns had walked up to me and planted a kiss on my forehead !

Yes, even though I once roundly cursed the Rangers and Scotland winger, who still appears ridiculously young looking for his 75 years.

Back in April 1964, I wanted to put my hands around Davie’s throat after he had played an integral part in Rangers’ Scottish Cup final victory over my team, Dundee.

Come to think of it, I wasn’t too chuffed with Billy and Bertie, either, when I think back to 1967 and the League Cup final, Celtic beating the Dark Blues 5-3 just a few months after the Lisbon Lions’ marvellous European Cup triumph in Lisbon.

But by the time I was commissioned to work with Billy on his autobiography “Hail Cesar” – no, the nickname did not derive from Julius but rather Romero, the actor, of whom Billy was a huge fan -that final was a long-buried memory.

However, I do clearly recall the dreich November afternoon when I was sat in the front room of Billy’s home in Newton Mearns watching him pour over the manuscript. I thought, all of a sudden: “My God, that’s Billy McNeill sitting across from me. How many people would pay to swap places with me right now”?

When eventually Billy became aware of my staring, he enquired as to the reason why and, after I offered an explanation, he replied: “Listen, Jim, I’m no different from the next person. I laugh, I cry, I worry, I eat, I sleep and sometimes I say things I wish I hadn’t. I just happened to play football for a living.”

Fair enough. But how many people do you know who have lifted the European Cup above their head?

In Billy’s case and that of Bertie and Davie, they comfortably fit the criteria of heroes and legends.

But it isn’t always the case. So we should appreciate our heroes while we can, and if they also happen to have attained legendary status, so much the better.

Regrettably, too often these days the words hero and legend are bandied about to a ludicrous extent to describe mere mortal sporting entities unworthy of either description.

Personally, I prefer my heroes to have earned the right to be feted and worshiped.



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