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“You lose the person twice,” says Martyn McNeill of the illness that killed his dad last April.
Over nine years, Alzheimer’s steadily eroded the proud memories of the Glasgow club and the achievements of his family, his mobility and, most recently, his ability to speak, from the Celtic mythology.
Billy died last year on April 22, months before the release of a Glasgow report revealing for the first time that footballers have a three-and-a-half times higher chance of dying from neurodegenerative disease and a five-fold risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
“Liz McNeill, his 52-year-old widow, reflects, “Looking back at the photos now, he looked pretty sick,” showing me a picture of the pair at the nursing home where he spent his final months.
“You don’t see it when you’re with anyone every day.
Like Andy Walker and Bertie Auld, footballers used to come and see him. Frank McAvennie used to say,’ Gaffer, how are you? ‘Do you remember how we played back in the day? ‘……..’ And I was saying, ‘I hope he gets it all, but you didn’t know it,” she says sadly.
Later, when shown pictures of his 60-plus-year involvement with Celtic, she says Billy “just smiled”. During its most fruitful period, he captained the club, highlighted by its historic victory in the 1967 European Cup.
It was a prosperous time for soccer, winning nine leagues in a row and the European Cup, in particular. That’s never going to happen again,” she proudly says. “He was fantastic at what he did.
“It wasn’t that long ago that we were saying it’s been three months since your father died, and now it’s only three months until the month he died,” she says.
“It’s just …” Liz’s voice breaks off when asked what the last nine months have been like, but she is bolstered by a tight network of close family support, including her five children, Susan, Carol, Libby, Paula and Martyn, and eight grandchildren, Michael, 11, Darcy, 13, Sean, 15, Matthew, 20, Abby, 24, James, 28, Gerrard, 27, Alexandra, 25. A great-grandchild is on the way.
She says, “When Abby and Alexander and James and Gerrard were younger, they were working with their parents, so we took them to school and took them to the dentist.” We’re pretty similar.
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A source of support is also the fans of the club to which her husband has devoted his life.
When I go to soccer and go to the dressing room, which is a fun way to watch soccer, the fans are saying, ‘How are you, Liz?’ ‘The fans are terrific.’
“Martyn adds, “He always had time for them. But for us, he was just a dad, he wasn’t a legend, he wasn’t a footballer.”
“As I said at his funeral, one of the most common questions I get asked is what it was like to have a legend as a father, but we didn’t know him as such, he was just a father. We were privileged when we look back.”
Liz remembers the time the Celtic wives went together to Butlins, not quite today’s lavish “WAG” outings. “But it was the “wedding of the year” in Scotland when the former White Heather Club dancer married the Celtic defender.
“We were a regular family, we were grounded,” says Liz, “much like Harry and Cathy Hood and all the Lions of Lisbon. Most of them came from huge families of the working class. My dad worked in the shipyards,
I guess the difference was that we didn’t have Easter or Christmas holidays, because that’s when it’s all about soccer. A few weeks in summer, maybe.
If the two oldest girls were asked, “Is your father Billy McNeill?” they would say, “No, who is he?” she laughs.
For several years, the family decided not to make Billy’s diagnosis public, and Liz says she tried to keep it a secret from her husband, too.
“One day, he said to me, ‘Is there something wrong with me? I can’t remember things.’ And I said to him, ‘Neither can I remember anything,’ she says.
I didn’t want to tell him because I think they talk about it more when you say something to someone, so why should I?
“That was a shock. You don’t expect something like that to be on your doorstep.
“As you get older, you forget things, so I didn’t quite get it at first. I said, ‘Get the vacuum cleaner,’ and he said, ‘Where’s the car?’ It was just little things like that.
But we had the tests done and the diagnosis was made. He started going downhill. For the last couple of years, he couldn’t speak