As a captain and manager of Celtic, Billy McNeill mastered the art of conjuring up the right words for the right moment.
Approaching his 70th birthday, subtle changes crept in. Finding a name for everyday household items became as challenging as the build-up to a cup final at Hampden.
For the first British footballer to raise the European Cup aloft, there was an obvious concern.
Former Scotland and Celtic star Billy McNeill passed away in April 2019 after a dementia battle
A central defender with Celtic for 18 years it was ‘Cesar’s’ job to head footballs. Training sessions were spent thudding leather spheres into the Glasgow sky. Saturdays were spent heading soaking wet footballs away from bruising centre forwards in a crowded penalty area.
‘I’m not sure if we ever talked about the links between heading the ball and Alzheimer’s,’ his widow Liz tells Sportsmail. I know that when Billy was alive there was research at Stirling University into the impact heading a ball has on movement of the brain.
‘I watched the television programme where the people tested headed the ball 20 times to see the results of that.
‘Some older people simply contract dementia because of their age. But then you look down south at footballers like Jeff Astle, who was quite young when he died.
‘I also saw the news on Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles and the England players who won the World Cup in 1966. All the training they did with a ball must have had an effect.
‘It’s like boxing, I think. If boxers are punched on the head all the time their brains move backwards and forwards all the time.’
In Glasgow, a football manager quickly learns that his survival depends on the political skills of Obama and the diplomatic nous of Kissinger.
Between 1957 and 1991, McNeill won a remarkable 31 trophies as player and manager. Scotland’s Bobby Moore, his every public utterance was measured and carefully chosen to represent Celtic the ‘right’ way.
That’s why the early warning signs could not be dismissed forever. To family and friends, he was no longer the man they knew.
‘Sometimes when you get to a certain age you do get caught up,’ Liz continued.
McNeill is seen with the Champions League trophy during a draw for the tournament in 2013
‘I asked Mike Jackson (McNeill’s long-time friend): “Have you noticed anything with Billy saying the wrong words”? ‘He said he had noticed the odd thing and we took it from there.
‘One day we were sitting before he was diagnosed and Billy said to me: “I think there’s something wrong with me. I can’t remember things”.
‘As you do, I said: “Ach, don’t be stupid, I can’t remember things either”. We passed it off like that. But as time went on we realised something wasn’t quite right. We all did.’
The tests revealing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia came after his 70th birthday. Research by the University of Glasgow’s Dr Willie Stewart indicates that the eighth decade is the point at which a career in football makes professionals three and a half times more likely to die of a neurodegenerative illness than those from other walks of life.
McNeill finally succumbed in April 2019 at the age of 79.
‘Billy lasted nine years and, in the last two years of his life, he couldn’t communicate,’ adds Liz. ‘He lost the power of his speech. A lot of people don’t last as long as that But when that happens you kind of lose the person that you knew.
‘We tried our best. I would get a taxi and take him up to The Avenue shopping centre and you could see his eyes light up when he got out and about and saw people.
‘He couldn’t walk so well towards the end but people would come and shake his hand and have a wee word with him. You take comfort from the fact he was so well-liked and admired and you feel proud. But it’s a horrible disease which takes over your life.’
Jimmy Johnstone, Celtic’s greatest ever player, passed away from Motor neurone disease in 2006. Another of the Lisbon Lions – matchwinner Stevie Chalmers – died after his own struggle with dementia a week after McNeill at the age of 83.
As one of Celtic’s famous Lisbon Lions he lifted the trophy after beating Inter Milan in 1967
In October 1966, an article in the Football League Review magazine quoted a club medic claiming that ‘the continual jarring of the brain tissue could and does affect players,’ telling of crippling headaches suffered by Everton legend Dixie Dean.
Still, it took decades for the Professional Footballers’ Association – the union paid to look out for the well-being of members – to fund proper research.
‘You wonder sometimes if the football authorities are taking much notice or doing much about it,’ ponders Liz. ‘Jeff Astle’s family are continually fighting to have this recognised as an industrial injury for footballers.
If they get that passed, then think of all the people who need it who are going to say they need help.
‘Billy was one of the more fortunate ones because he had a good career. But I feel sad for so many other families of footballers who don’t get to use their name to push the case for more awareness and help.’
Sportsmail’s dementia campaign has already received the backing of Amanda Kopel, widow of former Dundee United and Manchester United defender Frank.
‘Amanda called me and was very nice,’ adds Liz. ‘The thing with this issue is that it raises its head from time to time and then it fades away. Then someone else suffers or dies and it raises its head again. This Daily Mail campaign is an important reminder that, for families affected, the pain of dementia never goes away.’ A dancer with the BBC’s White Heather Club, the teenage Elizabeth Callaghan was earning twice as much as one of Celtic’s young prospects when the pair met in 1961. They married two years later.
‘I was 17 and Billy was 21 when we got together. That’s a long time. ‘He wasn’t a famous footballer to us. He was a dad and a grandad.
A statue was made in his honour outside Celtic Park, pictured above its unveiling in 2015
‘The kids loved their dad and the grandchildren loved their grandad and his stories. We have eight grandchildren and they all loved him and it’s nice to hear their stories.
‘When we lost him it left a big void in the household.’ The Billy McNeill Fund was started by Liz and son Martyn to raise funds and awareness for sufferers of dementia.
Covid-19 has pushed a charity golf day and Evening Ball hosted by charity Battle Against Dementia back to 2022 But a golf day in August raised £20,000 and, after losing his father to vascular dementia, charity founder Dougie McCluskey reveals: ‘We have a plan in place to build a dementia hub.
‘The ground has been donated by Balmore Golf Club and that’s in our future plans. Covid has knocked that back slightly, but it’s still in our plans for everybody who has suffered through dementia.
‘The hub would give victims’ families a bit of respite, create a memory area, maybe a film area.
‘Our annual golf day with people like Frank McAvennie, John Hartson and Ian Durrant is planned for May 29.
‘The Billy McNeill Golf Day in 2022 is the biggest event we will pull off and we’re hopeful that a lot of people will get behind something like that.’ For visitors to Celtic Park, a bronze statue of McNeill holding aloft the European Cup is still the first thing they set eyes on. And an appeal to raise £70,000 will now see a second statue erected in the legendary defender’s native Bellshill sometime next year.
‘They hope to get it done next April or May and it will be different to the statue at Celtic Park,’ explains Liz.
‘It’s a source of pride to know that Billy is still held in such public affection and esteem.’