As the captain and manager of Celtic, Billy McNeill had mastered the art of conjuring the right words for the right moment.
Just before his 70th birthday, subtle changes crept in. Finding a name for everyday household items was just as difficult as preparing for a cup final in Hampden.
There were obvious concerns for the first British footballer to skyrocket the European Cup.
Former Scottish and Celtic star Billy McNeill died in April 2019 after battling dementia
As a center-back at Celtic for 18 years, Cesar was responsible for directing footballs. The training sessions were spent hurling leather balls into the Glasgow sky. Saturdays were spent steering soaking wet footballs forward from bruises in a crowded penalty area.
“I’m not sure if we’ve ever talked about the link between headers and Alzheimer’s,” his widow Liz told Sportsmail. I know, when Billy was still alive, Stirling University was researching what influence a ball had on the movement of the brain.
“I saw the TV show where the people tested passed the ball 20 times to see the results.
“Some older people simply get dementia because of their age. But then you look south to footballers like Jeff Astle, who was quite young when he died.
‘I also saw the news about Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles and the English players who won the 1966 World Cup. All the training they did with a ball must have had an impact.
‘It’s like boxing I think. When boxers are hit on the head all the time, their brains move back and forth all the time. ‘
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Between 1957 and 1991, McNeill won a remarkable 31 trophies as a player and manager. Bobby Moore from Scotland, every public utterance has been measured and carefully selected to portray Celtic in the “right” way.
Therefore the early warning signs could not be dismissed forever. He was no longer the man they knew to family and friends.
“Sometimes when you reach a certain age, they catch up with you,” Liz continued.
McNeill is seen holding the Champions League trophy in a tie for the 2013 tournament
I asked Mike Jackson (McNeill’s longtime friend), “Did you notice anything when Billy said the wrong words?” ‘He said he noticed the strange thing and we took it from there.
“One day we were sitting before he was diagnosed and Billy said to me,” I think something is wrong with me. I can’t remember things. “
‘Like you, I said, “Oh, don’t be stupid, I don’t remember things either”. We passed it on like this. But over time, we discovered that something was wrong. We all did. ‘
The tests that revealed Alzheimer’s and dementia were done after his 70th birthday. Investigations by Dr. Willie Stewart of the University of Glasgow show that the eighth decade is the point where a career in football results in professionals dying from neurodegenerative disease three and a half times more often than from other areas of life.
McNeill finally succumbed in April 2019 at the age of 79.
“Billy lasted nine years and for the last two years of his life he was unable to communicate,” adds Liz. ‘He lost the power of his speech. Lots of people don’t last that long, but when that happens you somehow lose the person you knew.
‘We tried our best. I would take a cab and take him to The Avenue Mall and you could see his eyes light up when he was out seeing people.
“Towards the end he couldn’t walk very well, but people came and shook his hand and said a little word to him. You console yourself with the fact that he was so popular and admired and you feel proud. But it’s a terrible disease that is taking over your life. ‘
Jimmy Johnstone, Celtic’s greatest player of all time, died of motor neuron disease in 2006. Another Lions from Lisbon – match winner Stevie Chalmers – died a week after McNeill aged 83 after his own battle with dementia.
As one of the famous Lisbon Lions of Celtic, he won the trophy after beating Inter Milan in 1967
In October 1966, an article in the Football League Review quoted a club medical professional who claimed “the constant jarring of the brain tissue could and affects players,” and recounted debilitating headaches from which Everton legend Dixie Dean suffered.
Still, it took decades for the professional footballers association – the union that was paid to look after the wellbeing of its members – to fund proper research.
“Sometimes you wonder if the football authorities take a lot of notice or do a lot about it,” says Liz. ‘Jeff Astle’s family is constantly fighting for this to be recognized as an industrial accident for footballers.
If you can do this, think of all the people who need it who will say they need help.
‘Billy was one of the happier ones because he had a good career. But I am saddened to see so many other families of footballers who cannot use their names to raise the case for awareness and help. ‘
Sportsmail’s dementia campaign has already been supported by Amanda Kopel, widow of former Dundee United and Manchester United defender Frank.
“Amanda called me and was very nice,” adds Liz. ‘The thing about this problem is that from time to time it lifts its head and then fades away. Then someone else suffers or dies and it raises its head again. This Daily Mail campaign is an important reminder that the pain of dementia never goes away for affected families. ‘As a dancer at the BBC’s White Heather Club, young Elizabeth Callaghan made twice as much as one of Celtic’s young prospects when the two met in 1961. They married two years later.
“I was 17 and Billy was 21 when we met. That’s a long time. “He wasn’t a famous football player for us. He was a father and a grandpa.
In his honor, a statue was made in front of Celtic Park, which is pictured above the unveiling in 2015
“The children loved their father and the grandchildren loved their grandpa and his stories. We have eight grandchildren and everyone loved him and it’s nice to hear their stories.
“When we lost it, it left a huge gap in the budget.” The Billy McNeill Fund was started by Liz and son Martyn to raise funds and raise awareness for people with dementia.
Covid-19 has postponed a charity golf day and an Evening Ball hosted by the Charity Battle Against Dementia to 2022. However, a day of golf in August brought in £ 20,000, and after losing his father to vascular dementia, charity founder Dougie McCluskey reveals, “We have a plan to build a dementia center.
‘The floor was donated by the Balmore Golf Club and that is part of our future plans. Covid pushed that back slightly, but it’s still on our plans for anyone with dementia.
“The hub would give the victims’ families a little rest, create a memory area, maybe a movie area.”
‘Our annual golf day with the likes of Frank McAvennie, John Hartson and Ian Durrant is scheduled for May 29th.
“Billy McNeill Golf Day in 2022 is the biggest event we are going to have and we hope that many people will support it.” For visitors to Celtic Park, a bronze statue of McNeill holding the European Cup is still the first thing they see. And with the call to raise £ 70,000, a second statue will be erected in Bellshill of the legendary defender sometime next year.
“They hope it will be ready by next April or May and it will be different from the statue in Celtic Park,” explains Liz.
“It is a source of pride to know that Billy is still held in such public affection and appreciation.”