And now Billy McNeill has died, one of the greatest footballers who ever lived and captain of the Lisbon Lions who in 1967 won the European Cup against Inter Milan. Watching the game on a tiny flickering black and white television, Celtic’s 2-1 win remains one of my earliest childhood memories. Many of my favourite players of all time played that day. Tommy Gemmell, Bobby Murdoch, Bobby Lennox, Jimmy Johnstone and of course Billy McNeill. Of the 15 man squad, 14 were born within 10 miles of Celtic Park. Scotland’s greatest ever club side and arguably Britain’s too.
I recall reading about two years ago that McNeill had been diagnosed with dementia. Have we once again lost a footballer from a certain vintage who developed dementia as a result of playing the sport at which he excelled?
Evidence is growing, that’s for sure. We know for a fact that boxing causes irreparable brain damage, so when a footballer repeatedly and for many years uses his head to propel what was then a very heavy ball, which got heavier still in the wet, we have to suspect the worse.
By the time I started playing at an albeit far lower level than the European Cup, I would dread heading the ball, so I seldom did. Even if you caught it right, you might ‘see stars’ for a few moments after. If you caught it wrong, you could become dazed and confused very quickly. Now imagine doing that for 10, 20 years?
Footballs today are very light – too light, some might say – and I’d imagine the risk of brain injury would be far lower. However, we don’t know for sure. That’s why we need to take action now, particularly as there is no cure for dementia.
Football has to get its house in order and help to establish by working with medical science the risks of heading a football. Until we know what they are, would it not be safer to ensure children in particular were not exposed to heading a ball as their brains are developing? And then we look at case studies from players who developed dementia when they got old. When all this has been carried, we will hopefully know the way forward and if it means heading the ball must be banned, so be it.
It’s sad enough to learn that Billy McNeill has died. If we learn following his death that future cases of dementia can be reduced or even avoided through less contact with the head, we owe it to his memory to make football safer.