Deaths of Lisbon Lions Billy McNeill and Stevie Chalmers are a call to action – Martyn McLaughlin

Following the deaths of Lisbon Lions Billy McNeill and Stevie Chalmers, football cannot be allowed to ignore growing evidence about the risk of brain injury to players, writes Martyn McLaughlin.

With the loss of Billy McNeill and Stevie Chalmers within the space of a week, Scottish football has been robbed of two of its heroes. Their remarkable achievement as part of the Lisbon Lions – a group of young, working class men, all but one of whom were both within a 10-mile radius of Celtic Park – will forever remain one of the cornerstones of Scottish footballing folklore.

Overnight, the names of those who conquered the might of Europe assumed a place in the history books. They inspired subsequent generations of players and managers, but just as importantly, they nourished ordinary punters who saw in Jock Stein’s players something of themselves. The significance of that gift cannot be understated. It showed how even amid the soot and stoor of post-war Glasgow, flowers could emerge through the cracks.

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Though the pride of lions has dwindled in number, their names remain seared into the memory of supporters, no matter that a sizeable minority of their ranks were not yet born at the time of their greatest triumph. That such adulation is practically hereditary does not rob it of its sincerity.

The statue of Billy McNeill outside Celtic Park in Glasgow is a lasting tribute to the Lisbon Lions (Picture: John Devlin)The statue of Billy McNeill outside Celtic Park in Glasgow is a lasting tribute to the Lisbon Lions (Picture: John Devlin)
The statue of Billy McNeill outside Celtic Park in Glasgow is a lasting tribute to the Lisbon Lions (Picture: John Devlin)

Indeed, even in the indecorous, hyper-commoditised age of the modern game, where heritage and history are considered intangible assets to be mined for lucrative secondary revenue streams, there is something wonderfully pure about that team, about those players.

It is heartening, then, to consider how in the near two decades between the death of Bobby Murdoch and that of McNeill and Chalmers, the legacy of such an era-defining group has been widely recognised and celebrated.

Perhaps the lions have one final, glorious victory left in them, even if it must fall to a younger generation to secure it on their behalf.

The fact both McNeill and Chalmbers died from degenerative brain conditions in quick succession is cause for scepticism as well as sorrow. Such a tragedy summons up several pertinent questions about football and dementia that have for too long gone unanswered.

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Anyone in doubt as to the flippancy with which the game’s governing bodies have treated the issue would be best advised recalling the plight of Jeff Astle, the former England and West Bromwich Albion centre forward who died 17 years ago, aged just 59.

A coroner recorded a verdict of “death by industrial disease”, with a neurological expert pointing to “considerable evidence of trauma to the brain”, similar to that experienced by a boxer.

The Football Association, in turn, wrote two letters to the Astle family. The first advised them against taking legal action; the second offered complimentary tickets for an upcoming England friendly.

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If you are wondering to what extent the Scottish game’s governing body maintained an interest in such matters, a clue can be found in the organisation’s initialism.

They stood meekly by when Billy McPhail, the former Celtic striker, found himself in the bleak surroundings of an industrial tribunal in Glasgow. Having developed symptoms of pre-senile dementia, he took the then Benefits Agency to court. Like many footballers of his era, he was a modest man, a trait reflected in his claim for disability payments of £70 a week.

The tribunal, however, rejected his case. It deemed the heading of a football to be part of a footballer’s job, and therefore could not be categorised as an industrial injury.

If that ruling was in large part informed by the ambiguity surrounding any connection between a footballer’s brain injuries and their trade, that stance looks increasingly precarious.

Many medical experts believe it is only a matter of time before a causal link is proven, and that modern players remain at risk.

Dr Willie Stewart, the consultant neuropathologist who examined Astle’s brain, has warned against the “lazy characterisation” that such traumatic injuries ended with the introduction of lighter footballs.

The honorary clinical associate professor at the University of Glasgow is spearheading a long overdue FA study into the issue which draws on the expertise of the Hampden Sports Clinic.

The study, which is scrutinising 10,000 former professionals as well as 30,000 members of the general public, aims to determine whether the dementia rate is higher in the former group.

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Even a positive answer, however, will only lead to further questions, such as the exact nature of the risk, and whether footballers might be more vulnerable to age-related illnesses on account of their healthy lifestyles.

After so many players and their families have waited in vain for authoritative evidence, the good news is that the study’s findings are expected later this year, but that occasion should mark the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end. The likes of the Celtic Foundation has done admirable work in recent years funding dementia care, but the spectre of liability has meant such initiatives are the exception as opposed to the rule.

It is, however, easy to complicate what should be simple: even if the game has no legal duty to ensure former players with neurological conditions are properly supported, it has a moral obligation to do so.

It is too late to make a difference for McNeill and Chalmers, but would it not be a fitting tribute to such heroes to acknowledge that, perhaps, they were victims too?

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