The widow of Celtic legend Billy McNeill has spoken of her pride that ex-footballers affected by dementia will be helped by the first fund of its kind.
The Billy McNeill Fund, created in memory of the 1967 European Cup winner, will provide financial aid and therapeutic support to former players.
The scheme’s launch follows a University of Glasgow study, published last October, which found a conclusive link between football and neurological diseases. The study found footballers are three-and-a-half times more likely to develop dementia.
Widow Liz McNeill said the fund was a fitting way to honour the former Lisbon Lion’s sporting legacy and “help others in the same situation”.
Former Celtic captain McNeill died on 22 April aged 79 – nine years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, which his widow said she believed was linked to “his forte” of heading footballs during his playing days.
The Glasgow 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 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 – that was his forte. 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.”
Liz 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 McNeill family was 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.
Billy’s son Martyn McNeill said: “When Dougie 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.
“If we can raise money to help others in the same situation, that would be a great thing.” The Billy McNeill Fund will be launched on 29 May at a charity event in Glasgow.
Celtic and Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish, Neil Lennon, Ally McCoist, Walter Smith and Ian Durrant have all given their backing to the event, which will include a celebrity golf tournament in Glasgow and a ball at Mar Hall in Bishopton, Renfrewshire.
The wife of former Dunfermline Athletic FC captain Jimmy MacLean had also called for financial support to be introduced by sporting bodies to help alleviate hardship for families.
MacLean, 82, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2015 at the age of 78. His wife Mary, 58, said he was unaware he has the illness. She is adamant her husband’s footballing career contributed to the condition and believed headers, which could be banned for under-12s by the Scottish Football Association, in particular, were to blame.