Heroes of the past still giving to stars of today

Billy McNeill and Stevie Chalmers, the legendary members of Celtic’s 1967 European Cup-winning team who passed away within the last week, were childhood heroes of mine.

Both, by the way, were over a decade retired from football at that stage, lest you think the image of your correspondent on this page has been a little too generously photoshopped.

Therefore, with the present obscured, the past came into focus.

We were late adapters to the joys of the video recorder. My father thought it was “a technology that a market was invented for,” whatever that meant. 

But he was persuaded when his mate Neilly, a ‘video man’ and a fellow Glaswegian, dubbed us off copies of Jinky — The Jimmy Johnstone Story and the Official History of Celtic.

So we watched Jock Stein’s team conquer Europe on grainy VHS, checking with our father for eyewitness corroboration. 

He handed me a yellowing copy of Sure It’s A Grand Old Team To Play For, the autobiography of Lisbon Lions goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson, as the accompanying text, in the way a Jewish boy is sat in front of the Talmud on his bar mitzvah.

The dimensions of time work differently in a child’s mind; when they learn about the past it can feel as vivid as the present. 

So the Lisbon Lions story existed as a recurring contemporary narrative for us, Chalmers flicking in the winner every night, McNeill climbing the steps of the Estadio Nacional over and over on Neilly’s well-worn Scotch videotape, that team preserved forever with tight mid-60s haircuts, the fresh-faced embodiment of young Glaswegian cheek.

Only five of them remain now, after the passing of McNeill and Chalmers. I remember meeting the latter with a few of the other Lions on a visit to Ireland and talking to him briefly. 

I should have asked him what it felt like to score the winner in a European Cup final, but instead I made stupid small talk, thinking that he was probably sick talking about that goal. 

I told him my father was from Maryhill in Glasgow; he said he had an off-licence in Maryhill for a while. 

He joked that maybe my father was a customer of his.

I felt uncomfortable at the idea that they were now old men, and I felt uncomfortable too at the idea of Chalmers running an off-licence, checking orders for whiskey and filling in tax returns. 

To my mind, those images on the video cassettes were evidence of immortality — but it turned out Valhalla was an offy in Glasgow’s north side.

Players of that generation might have had good reason to lament what they got out of the deal with football when compared to those that followed them. 

Prestige Champions League ties like last night’s between Barcelona and Liverpool and all the billion euro TV and sponsorship deals are their legacy, today’s riches earned off the magic they created.

How cruel then that it seems those that gave so much found that football was taking more from them than they could ever have imagined. 

McNeill and Chalmers both suffered from dementia in their final years, and their names are being added to the long list of former players whose illnesses may have been caused by the trauma of heading a ball.

Campaigns for increased research into the issue have been ongoing since the inquest into the death of ex-West Brom striker Jeff Astle at the age of 59 in 2002 showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain condition linked to catastrophic head trauma.

Prior to Astle, the former Celtic player Billy McPhail lost a case for industrial injuries compensation in 1998 over claims that his Alzheimer’s Disease was caused by football, while the families of England World Cup winner Nobby Stiles and Mike Sutton, an ex-Norwich player and father of Chris, have long criticised English football authorities for dragging their heels over the issue.

The PFA, which pays its departing chief executive Gordon Taylor over £2 million, commits just £125,000 a year to dementia research. 

It commissioned a 10-year study in 2002, but subsequently disowned the research in 2014. Chris Sutton described their stance as “an utter disgrace. A dereliction of duty”. 

The FA were similarly weak, largely ignoring the concerns of the Astle family for many years and even sending them a letter warning against legal action.

In 2017, the FA finally announced a large-scale study whose results will be announced this year. What research exists already is troubling.

In 2017, one smaller UK study showed CTE in post-mortems of former footballers at a rate vastly higher than the average population. In America, perhaps due to the prominence of the NFL concussion issue, research is at a more advanced stage. 

Boston University are close to finding a way to diagnose CTE in living humans. 

Heading has been banned in soccer for under 10s and it is no coincidence that the problems which led to the retirement of Kevin Doyle were diagnosed in America, not England.

“I literally cannot believe what I have just seen,” tweeted Dawn Astle, daughter of Jeff, watching Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen going back onto the pitch after suffering a head injury on Tuesday night, and there have been calls for football to bring in temporary concussion substitutions to avoid situations like Vertonghen’s in future. 

It is poignant to see those who’ve endured and helped overcome the ignorance of the past champion increased awareness today.

It may be that the suffering of Astle, McNeill, Chalmers and others will spare subsequent generations similar pain. 

It is a bitter irony that the players who did so much to create the glory game that modern soccer superstars profit so richly from are still giving to their successors even in their dying years.

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