It’s been a joy to read all that’s been written about Billy McNeill since his wife Liz decided to tell the story of his dementia yesterday. Much of it, inevitably, reflected on a magnificent life. For now I’m not going to tell you about what he did for Celtic, what his leadership made possible, even today, or what he was like as a human being. That’s a story for another day. Dementia is not the end of the story, so we should not treat this news as such, but it does become a profound end to most of what defined the life that proceeded it.
For long enough after his diagnoses (seven years ago), Billy remained as charming and entertaining as ever. I knew of his condition but would never have been aware if his ability to talk football, or about Bellshill, was anything to go by. He once joked about his fading memory to me, before issuing himself a tongue-in-cheek caution, “Don’t suppose I should joke about that these days”.
The last time I met him was with Davie Hay at a publicity shoot in late 2014 for a book we did. He could still recall great detail about the young Davie, but for the first time I could see a fragility about the man. There was no joking about his memory this time.
It may be 50 years since Billy’s greatest moment, but his stature remains unparalleled. In speaking openly about his condition, Liz will hopefully give strength to the many other sufferers in our communities. It also gives us reason to consider the consequences of heading the heavy footballs of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. While the modern ball doesn’t retain water like earlier models, it is still a 1lb weight that is regularly propelled at 70mph. Small sample sizes lead to bad conclusions, but if you put your head on a long clearance as it drops from the sky, it will not take a lot to convince you it’s not a healthy activity.
When news like this breaks people are often full of regret at opportunities not taken. Not with Billy. He was adored by his elders, his contemporaries and by those who got to know him by his legend. He spent his life living among his people, openly and accessible. We all got a moment with Billy McNeill. And you know what? He loved every minute.