YOU didn’t have to be a Celtic supporter to have a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye at Parkhead on Saturday as the Glasgow club honoured their legendary former captain and manager Billy McNeill.

Those Kilmarnock fans in attendance, who joined in with the 67 seconds applause before kick-off in the Ladbrokes Premiership fixture, will testify to what an emotional afternoon it was for everyone present regardless of their allegiances.

McNeill, due to the high standard that he played the game at on the park for both club and country and gentlemanly manner which he always conducted himself in off it, was an individual who transcended club rivalries. Scotland, not just Celtic, has lost a true great.

The tributes which have been paid to him from across the country and even further afield – and both Aston Villa and Manchester City, the two clubs he managed in England, have also expressed their condolences in different ways in recent days – have illustrated just how important the first British player to lift the European Cup was to the game.

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His funeral this Friday promises to be another highly-charged occasion, not least when the cortege passes by the stadium where he performed with such distinction between 1957 and 1975.

But surely the greatest show of respect that could now be paid to McNeill, who passed away aged 79 on Easter Monday, would be for the sport he loved to take positive action to prevent more players developing dementia, which he spent the final years of his life battling, and do far more to care for those unfortunate souls who already have it.

McNeill is, alas, not the only player of his generation to suffer from the cruel illness. Indeed, earlier this month another iconic centre half of the 1960s and 1970s, the former Liverpool skipper Tommy Smith, was laid to rest five years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

There are, sadly, many more, including several who plied their trade at his former club. Indeed, Jimmy McGrory, Celtic’s all-time greatest scorer with a British record 485 goals to his name, was another who was struck down by dementia before he passed away aged 78 in 1982.

Bobby Collins, Willie Fernie, Billy McPhail and Jock Weir, who were all revered in the East End in their day as well, also succumbed to degenerative brain conditions.

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There is a widely-held belief that this is an issue which only affects footballers of a bygone era who played when ball was heavier and therefore did more damage to those who connected with it and the modern day player is not at threat. But that is a dangerous and flawed viewpoint.

The ball now is far lighter and faster due to the more advanced synthetic materials it is made from, spends more time in the air and is therefore headed more often than was the case in the past. This, then, is a problem which could quite easily continue, and possibly even escalate, in the decades to come.

Moves to ban the heading of the ball among schoolchildren – a safeguard which is already in place in the United States as the result of an expensive lawsuit – in recent years have been seen as another example of the “Snowflake Generation” being too soft and been derided by many cynics. But Dr Don Williams, a consultant psychiatrist who has been examining what is an alarming trend for almost 40 years, disagrees.

The Football Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association in England are jointly funding research into the prevalence of dementia in former players. But that study, entitled “Football’s Influence on Lifelong Health and Dementia Risk”, only got underway last year. And the evidence is already compelling. Dr Williams is keen to see action taken immediately. With good reason.

“It is time to start the process of prevention,” he said last week. “I feel frustrated that nothing has happened. Heading the ball in children under 11 should be banned, as it is in the United States, and curtailing this component of the game among adults must start. Players at risk should also be screened regularly to detect the emergence of brain damage.

“They could perform cognitive tests and look for possible alterations to the structure of the brain and have a more informed discussion about the pros and cons of early retirement.

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“I would also like to see a campaign of awareness and for more of football’s vast resources to be channelled into a fund to ensure ex-players receive high-quality care and their relatives are plugged into an effective support network.”

Billy McNeill’s family took the brave decision to make his plight public two years ago in a deliberate attempt to generate increased funding for research into the link between heading footballs and dementia, to secure better care for those in the same unfortunate position and to try and prevent others from being struck down by the same illness. It would be unfortunate if his death now didn’t bring those admirable objectives closer.

Many would like to see the No.5 that Cesar wore throughout his playing days retired. But wouldn’t a charity match to raise funds for this hugely worthwhile cause be a more fitting way to commemorate his life and career? Such an event would doubtless attract widespread support.

A far greater financial commitment towards preventing the illness from occurring in footballers in future and to looking after those dedicated their lives to entertaining the public from a game that has no qualms in paying multi-million pound salaries to individuals who are unfit to lace the former Celtic skipper’s boots is the very least to reasonably expect.

AND ANOTHER THING . . .

Finishing second in the Ladbrokes Premiership would once be considered unacceptable at a club as large and successful as Rangers.

But the runners-up place in the Ladbrokes Premiership that the Ibrox club secured with their 2-0 win over Aberdeen at home yesterday is a sure sign that progress is, slowly but surely, being made down Govan way.

A big summer lies ahead for Steven Gerrard. He could lose Ryan Kent, Alfredo Morelos and possible even James Tavernier, three of his best performers, in the close season.

But if he can recruit well then landing silverware is a realistic goal in the 2019/20 campaign.