“You lose the person twice,” says Martyn McNeill, of the illness that claimed his father’s life last April.

Over nine years, Alzheimer’s Disease gradually eroded the Celtic legend’s proud memories with the Glasgow club and family milestones, his mobility and latterly his ability to communicate.

Billy died on April, 22 last year, months before a Glasgow study was published showing for the first time that footballers are three and a half times more likely to die from neurodegenerative disease and have a five-fold risk of Alzheimer’s.

“When I look back on pictures now, he did look quite ill,” reflects Liz McNeill, his wife of 52 years, showing me a picture of the couple in the care home where he spent his final months.

“When you are with someone every day you don’t see it.

“The footballers used to come up and see him, like Andy Walker and Bertie Auld. Frank McAvennie would say ‘How are you doing gaffer? Remember that time we played’... and I would think, I hope he’s getting all this but you just didn’t know,” she says sadly.


Latterly she says Billy “would just smile” when he was shown photographs of his 60-plus year connection with Celtic, captaining the club during their most successful era and punctuated by the historic European cup win in 1967.

“It was a good time for football, especially winning the nine leagues in a row and the European cup. It will never be done again," she says proudly. “He was good at what he did."

“It wasn’t long ago we were saying it’s three months since your dad passed and now it’s just about three months away to the month he died.

“It’s just...” Liz’s voice trails off when asked what the past 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, James and Gerrard were younger, their parents were working so we took them to school, took them to the dentist. We are very close.”

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Fans of the club her husband devoted his life to are also a source of support.

“When I go to the football and I go into the boardroom - which is a nice way to watch football - the fans will ask ‘How are you doing Liz?’ The fans are great.”

“He always had time for them,” adds Martyn. "But to us he was just dad, he wasn’t a legend, he wasn’t a footballer.


“As I said at his funeral, one of the questions I get asked most is what was it like having a legend for a father, but we didn’t know him as that, he was just dad. We were privileged looking back.”

Liz recounts the time the Celtic wives went to Butlins together, not quite the extravagant ‘WAG’ trips of the present day. However, when the former White Heather Club dancer married the Celtic defender, it was Scotland’s “wedding of the year.”

“We were a normal family, we were grounded.” says Liz “And so were Harry and Cathy Hood and all the Lisbon Lions. Most of them came from big working-class families. My dad worked in the shipyards,

“I suppose the difference was we didn’t have Easter holidays or Christmas holidays because that’s when all the football is on. A couple of weeks in the Summer maybe.

“If someone asked the two oldest girls, ‘Is your dad Billy McNeill’, they would say, ‘No, who’s he?’ she laughs.


The family chose not to disclose Billy’s diagnosis publicly for many years and Liz says she also tried to keep it from her husband.

“He did say to me one day, is there something wrong with me? I can’t remember things. And I said to him, ‘I can’t remember things either’.

“I didn’t want to say to say anything to him because I think if you tell someone something they worry more about it so why would I do that?

“It was a shock. You don’t expect something like that to come to your doorstep.

“As you get older you forget things, so in the beginning, I didn’t quite catch on. I’d say get the hoover and he would say, ‘where is the car?’ It was just wee things like that.

“So we got the tests done and it was diagnosed. He just gradually went downhill. In the latter years he couldn’t speak which was difficult.”

Read more: Football star's long battle with dementia led to ground-breaking Glasgow study

The couple left their home in Newton Mearns for a smaller apartment on Glasgow’s South Side before Billy was moved to a care home, where he spent the final two years of his life.


The family were fortunate, Liz says, that they were able to get Billy into a ‘good’ home, close to her flat which allowed her to visit him every day and give him his meals but she is aware that other families are not so fortunate.

Alzheimer Scotland estimates the annual care bill families face at more than £50million. The charity is campaigning for healthcare costs to be free for people in the advanced stages of the illness, which is supported by The Herald’s Think Dementia campaign.

“I don’t think it needs to be the poshest care home. As long as they care.” Liz says. "You want your loved one to be loved by them."

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While the Glasgow University study, led by Dr Willie Stewart, made no specific reference to heading the ball the Scottish Football Association is moving towards a ban for children under 12. All of Liz’s grandsons played football to pro-youth level.

Liz says: “In the days when Billy played, we have pictures and they would have what looked like a big hangman’s noose with the ball hanging down on the end of it.He would have to run and head it and people would throw balls at him.”


"The big difference between the game now and then is the football," Martyn adds. "I remember dad used to say when the ball got wet it would soak up the water and was akin to heading a medicine ball at times.To header that ball consistently, there must be some concussive effect.”

“You can look at other techniques, lighter balls and so on but it’s a big part of football. The medical back-up is completely different to when my dad played though. You were lucky if someone came on with a bucket of water and a sponge. They also didn’t have substitutes, once you were on, you were on.

“Any developments in safeguarding players, from the age of 12 to professional players have to be looked at.”


Liz hopes to get as many of the family together as possible to mark the first anniversary of Billy’s death.

“We have got a nice stone and it’s just two minutes down the road from us in the Mearns," she says.

“We all went down at Christmas and took wee Christmassy trees down. It’s just trying to get them all together at the same time.”

She is conscious that putting her husband’s name to the new football dementia fund will boost the profile of the charity and the disease, but wants Billy to be remembered for his sporting achievements. and a second statue is planned in her husband’s hometown of Bellshill. She is not convinced that knowledge of the dementia risk would have changed his life path.

“You can’t put an old head on young shoulders. If I had said to Billy years and years ago, do you think this is the right thing to do? Football was his life. It’s what he did.”