Former Pittodrie star Duncan Shearer today paid an emotional tribute to a veteran Don whose eye for finding players helped revitalise English football giants Chelsea.
Ian McNeill passed away at the age of 85 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Ian, who played 10 times for Aberdeen in the 1950s and earned the nickname The Mighty Atom, built his reputation as a scout and coach who was capable of finding diamonds in the Scottish lower leagues and even the Highland League.
Duncan, who was 21 at the time and playing for Clachnacuddin in the Highland ranks, had several unsuccessful trials before assistant manager Ian took him to Chelsea in 1983.
He persuaded the manager there to offer me a contract
Duncan said: “Without that man I wouldn’t have been a footballer, there’s no question about that.
“He took me down to Chelsea at 21, which I thought was really late.
“He persuaded the manager to offer me a contract because he saw something in me that other people didn’t.
“I’m forever grateful to him. Without Ian I wouldn’t have gone on to achieve playing for Scotland or Aberdeen, having a decent but short career. I owe everything to him.
“I would never have met my wife; I would never have had two children. My whole life would have been completely different.”
From Baillieston in Glasgow Ian, a forward, signed for Aberdeen in 1949 at the age of 17.
His career was initially hindered when he was called up for National Service in 1952.
Ian was in Kenya for two years, then married Sheila – who he first met at Aberdeen’s Beach Ballroom – after returning in 1955.
He made his senior debut for the Dons in January 1951 in a 1-1 draw with St Mirren.
In a modest playing career with the Reds, he made 10 competitive appearances – scoring once – before leaving for Leicester City in 1956 where he played first team football and won the Second Division title.
After moving into management, he steered Ross County to their first Highland League title in 1967 and later returned for a second spell in charge.
He led Wigan into theFootball League during his second spell as boss in 1978, before joining then Second Division Chelsea as assistant manager under John Neal in 1981. In the summer of 1983 – having narrowly avoided dropping to the third tier – the Blues began a recruitment drive using Ian’s excellent eye for a player and a limited budget.
They signed players who went on to become major figures at Stamford Bridge and elsewhere. Among these were Shearer, Billy Dodds, Kerry Dixon, Steve Clarke, Gordon Durie, Joe McLaughlin and ex-Chelsea star, now pundit, Pat Nevin.
In an emotional tribute on the Chelsea FC website, Pat wrote: “Along with the manager and his close friend John Neal he was instrumental in putting together a team at Chelsea that ensured some of the club’s darkest days were left behind.
“Ian could have a bit of a laugh with the lads and I particularly loved his prank of challenging newcomers to a 200-yard race even though he must have been well into his 50s.
“Ian often recalled that (chairman) Ken Bates had one look at me when I was signed and refused to believe this skinny little scruff would be able to cut it. The chairman said to Ian, ‘Would you stake your job on that kid?’
“Ian said he would, a brave move as I wouldn’t have done so myself.
“The final time I met Ian was just a few months back. I arranged with his son to meet him up in Aberdeen but I was warned that a level of dementia meant he almost certainly would not know who I was.
“This devastated me, but I still went to see him as I wanted to tell him face-to-face how important he had been to me.”
Ian, with John, eventually took an upstairs role at Chelsea, while still scouting, but returned to manage Shrewsbury Town in 1987.
He remained at Gay Meadow until 1990, before taking up various scouting roles.
These included a return to Chelsea under Claudio Ranieri and a spell at Leeds United, where he unearthed Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.
He finally retired in 2006.
Ian passed away at Maryfield West Care Home on Aberdeen’s Queen’s Road.
He is survived by his wife and children – Ian and Carol – and his grandchildren.
Dad was well-respected across the country
A Weekly Journal article from the 1950s proclaimed Ian as Pittodrie’s new Mighty Atom, a phrase he adored.
His son Ian said: “We have been overwhelmed by the warmth and support shown to us by the football community.
“Dad was well-respected across the country but always wanted to come back to Aberdeen where he met my mum. Dad worked until he was 74 and would have still been scouting for longer if it wasn’t for his health, he had a great eye for a player.”
Ian added that his father was well known to the taxi drivers around Aberdeen.
He said: “It was in a newspaper article he was called the Mighty Atom of Pittodrie; he loved that line. When his health was declining he would need to take taxis to get around and he would always tell the drivers he was the Mighty Atom of Pittodrie.”
A spokesman for Aberdeen FC said: “Ian was a great friend of the club, not just when he was a player here, and continued to assist with our Football Memories Programme, which is run by AFCCT, until quite recently.
“It was with great sadness we learned of his passing.
“Our thoughts are with Ian’s family and friends.”