THE widow of Celtic legend Billy McNeil has spoken of her pride that former footballers affected by dementia will be helped by the first fund of its kind, dedicated to her husband.

The Billy McNeil Fund will provide financial aid and therapeutic supports to former players and comes months after a Glasgow study was published showing the first conclusive link between football and neurological diseases.

In her first interview since his death last year, Liz McNeil said the fund was a fitting way to honour the former Lisbon Lion’s sporting legacy and “help others in the same situation.”

McNeil died on April 22, 2019 at the age of 79, nine years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, which his widow believes was linked to “his forte” of heading footballs during his playing days.

Read more: Study reveals former footballers have a five-fold risk of Alzheimer's Disease

The Glasgow University study, which was led by neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart, found former footballers of Billy’s generation had a five-fold risk of Alzheimer’s.

Liz McNeil said: “When Billy was diagnosed, we saw a doctor who told us he had a small cognitive impairment in the frontal lobe, which would be in keeping with heading the ball.

“The was his forte.

HeraldScotland:

“The European footballers of his era had died with dementia and Motor Neurone Disease, big players and also from down south in their age group.

“When Billy was young, if someone had said to him might take dementia through this, whether he was would have stopped playing football.....because that was his passion.”

Mrs McNeil said the fund was a “lovely way” to highlight a disease that affects around 90,000 Scots, adding: “Billy would have loved it and his parents too.”

The McNeil family were approached by Dougie McCluskey, who set up the charity, Battle Against Dementia, after losing his own father to the disease and which is overseeing the fund.

Martyn McNeil, Billy’s son, said: “When Dougie McCluskey contacted us with a view to using my father’s name for a fund, I spoke to the family and with all the research coming out linking dementia to football we felt it was fitting after what my dad’s been through.

“There is a generation of footballers with dementia, there is a higher rate and it has now been statistically proven and they need help."

HeraldScotland:

“If we can raise money to help others in the same situation, that would be a great thing.”

Read more: Scottish Government urged to end 'unfair' dementia care charges

The Billy McNeil Fund will be launched on May 29 at a charity event in Glasgow backed by Scottish football names, past and present and music and TV personalities.

Celtic and Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish, Neil Lennon, Ally McCoist and Ian Durrant have all given their backing to the event, which will include a celebrity golf tournament and ball at Mar Hall in Bishopton.

HeraldScotland:

In light of the Glasgow research, the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) has suggested that the Premier League should create an industry-wide fund to support former players with dementia and their families.

The PFA already provides some assistance through a benevolent fund while no such funding is available in Scotland.

The Glasgow study began after claims that former West Brom striker Jeff Astle died because of repeated head trauma.

Read more: Scottish FA could ban youngsters from heading footballs 'within weeks'

It compared deaths of 7,676 ex-players to 23,000 from the general population and found that there was also a four-fold increase in motor neurone disease and a two-fold risk of Parkinson’s disease in former professional footballers compared to population controls.

Although footballers had higher risk of death from neurodegenerative disease, they were less likely to die of other common diseases, such as heart disease and some cancers, including lung cancer.

The Scottish Football Association is pushing ahead with a ban on children under 12 heading footballs while brain injury charity Headway said further research should focus on modern lightweight footballs.

Martyn McNeil said: “Although the study showed a higher prevalence of dementia in footballers, they haven’t categorically linked it to heading that ball.

“Anything which helps safeguard players should be considered.”

For more information on the Billy Against Dementia - Charity Golf Day, visit https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/billy-against-dementia-charity-golf-day-battle-against-dementia-tickets-91685270111?ref=estw