Celtic legend Billy McNeill's dementia battle adds to calls for research into link with heading
The confirmation that Celtic’s legendary captain Billy McNeill, aged 76, is suffering from dementia adds substance to calls for more research into incidence of the illness amongst players who were noted for their prowess at heading the ball.
McNeill, skipper of the legendary Lisbon Lions side when they became the first British team to win the European Cup by beating Inter Milan in Lisbon in 1967, was at the heart of Celtic’s defence during their epic run of nine successive Scottish titles, seven Scottish Cup triumphs and six in the Scottish League Cup.
Known as ‘Caesar’ for his commanding style, McNeill was an impressive presence as he rose to make powerful clearances at one end of the pitch or to add to the Hoop’s attacking strength at the other. He had two spells as Celtic manager and was a frequent guest at matches until recently.
The symptoms of dementia, which first appeared seven years ago, became more visible as the illness progressed and when McNeill unveiled a statue of him holding the European Cup outside Celtic Park last year he required discreet assistance from family members.
His wife of 53 years, Liz, told Sunday newspapers: “His concentration is not as good and he now can’t communicate very well. It’s affected his speech.
“Sometimes, if something annoys him, he can still say a few words like ‘don’t do that’, but in general he finds it very difficult. It’s not because he doesn’t know how to speak. There’s just a part of his brain that won’t let him. It is sad. We don’t know what he can remember because he can’t communicate.”
The link between dementia and heading the ball has been debated for almost two decades. In 1999, the former Celtic striker, Billy McPhail, launched a legal action in an attempt to prove that damage to the left hemisphere of his brain had been caused by repeated heading of the old-fashioned leather ball.
“The ball used to get very heavy when it rained - when you took that full in the forehead it nearly knocked you over, said McPhail, but an industrial tribunal ruled that dementia did not count as an industrial injury. Three years later a coroner ruled that the former England international, Jeff Astle, had died from dementia because of repeatedly heading the ball and that his death was a consequence of “industrial disease.”
Astle’s family said after the verdict that ‘the game he lived for killed him’. What seemed as though it would be a breakthrough in prompting acknowledgement of a link between heading a football and dementia proved to be a false dawn, however. Last year the Telegraph urged that the time had come for a comprehensive investigation.
“I think it’s the right time for us to talk about this now,” said Liz McNeill. “Heading the ball and the possibilities of concussive effects on the brain needs more discussion. We don’t know if Billy’s dementia is linked to his football. More research needs to be done.”