The Wigan Athletic family lost one of its most important members at the weekend with the sad passing of Ian McNeill at the age of 85.
McNeill, the man who delivered the dream of Football League status to Wigan in 1978, enjoyed three spells with Latics, including spells at both Springfield Park and the then-JJB Stadium.
And Latics CEO Jonathan Jackson – a lifelong fan of the club – admits they broke the mould when they made the proud Glaswegian who went on to become an honourary Wiganer.
“Everyone at the club were saddened to hear the news that Ian had passed away,” Jackson told the Observer.
“Ian will always be remembered as the man who assembled one of our best ever teams.
“Firstly, when we were elected to the Football League in 1978, and then finishing in the top six in our first two seasons in the old Division Four.
“His teams were exciting to watch, and many supporters will have special memories of those times when Wigan Athletic finally made it into the ‘big-time’ – competing in the Football League and enjoying memorable cup runs.
“These achievements were even more impressive considering the league position of 14th at the end of 1976-77 season, our lowest ever in the Northern Premier League.
“However, the signings of players such as Peter Houghton, Noel Ward, John Wilkie, John Brown and Maurice Whittle proved inspired as Latics reached the third round of the FA Cup, and were elected to the league on June 2, 1978.
“Older supporters will remember Ian first became manager in 1968 in the inaugural season of the Northern Premier League, and less well known is that Ian returned to the club a third time in 2000 as chief scout under Bruce Rioch.
“He was a lovely man, passionate about football and people in football respected his opinions as he played, managed and scouted for many clubs.
“He was clearly an expert at spotting emerging talent, as his later years were spent scouting players for top level clubs.
“However, it was his time as manager in the late seventies that Wigan Athletic supporters will remember Ian most fondly.
“All Latics supporters owe a huge debt of gratitude to Ian as, without him, Wigan Athletic may still be a non-league club today – just like many of our closest rivals from that era.
“The word legend is used too often these days. But Ian McNeill will always be a true legend in the history of Wigan Athletic.”
Latics legend Tommy Gore – who now provides club commentary on a matchday – has fond first-hand experience of McNeill from inside the dressing room.
And he says the ‘memorable’ times the club enjoyed at the time will live with him forever.
“Ian was a really good manager,” recognised Gore.
“He had to change things when he arrived and, while it wasn’t a spectacular change at first, he brought a few players in and generated a really, really good team spirit which took us on to some great things.
“He liked us to play in the right way, encouraged us to play an attractive style, trusted us, and kept the players from the non-league days when we finally got into the league.
“Some of the cup runs and wins within those runs were heroic, and we shared some really memorable times together.
“My thoughts are with Ian’s family and friends at this sad time.”
McNeill’s love for Latics was such that he needed little persuasion to embark on a third tenure, under fellow Scot Rioch in 2000/01.
The pair had worked together with great success at Bolton, and Rioch described him as “a great friend with an unparalleled eye for a player.”
McNeill had been Rioch’s assistant at Millwall before moving back to the North West in 1992, where his ability to spot talents from all over Europe helped the club to two promotions and into the Premier League.
“Ian had a huge influence in what I achieved as a manager,” Rioch acknowledged.
“It is not always easy to find someone who knows the exact qualities you want in a footballer but, for me, Ian was that person.”
McNeill, who was also credited with bringing David Speedie, Kerry Dixon, Gordon Durie and Pat Nevin to Chelsea during his time at Stamford Bridge.
“I remember Ian telling me a story about recommending Pat (Nevin) to Chelsea’s chairman Ken Bates,” Rioch recalled. “He was only part-time at Clyde but the club wanted £90,000 for him. Ken Bates asked him if he was worth it, and would he put his house on it. Ian just said ‘I put my house on any signing I recommend’. And that’s how he was.
McNeill leaves behind a wife, Sheila, a son, Ian, and a daughter, Carole.
l Wigan Athletic have confirmed they will pay their respects to McNeill at Saturday’s League One home game against Southend United, for whom he played between 1962-64.