'He was obviously dealing with that at the time' - former Rangers team-mate recalls early signs of Marius Zaliukas’ illness at Ibrox
Darren McGregor says he was shocked to hear of his friend Marius Zaliukas’ death from motor neurone disease, and even more stunned to realise he had been living with the illness when they were team-mates together at Rangers.
While McGregor is a died in the wool Hibee and Marius Zaliukas made his name in Scotland at Hearts, where he captained the side to their Scottish Cup triumph over the Easter Road side, the capital foes became good friends when they spent season 2014/15 together at Ibrox.
“Big Zal and I spent a year together and, of all the players at Rangers, he was one of the closest to me. It was such a shame to hear the news.
“I had heard whisperings that he had motor neurone disease but I never did manage to get that clarified. Then I heard the news of his passing and I was so shocked.”
But, looking back, McGregor now recognises that although his Lithuanian pal never mentioned the illness, there were signs that something was amiss during that season together in Govan, although he says it never showed in his colleague’s performances.
“I always remember, at Rangers, he had something wrong with his right hand. He was incapable of gripping and lifting things and he had a bit of muscle wastage in between his thumb and fore-finger.
“I actually read an article with one of his Lithuanian teammates [Saulius Mikoliūnas] which said that his symptoms had started to show at Hearts, which was a massive shock to me. I thought it was only uncovered later.
“But he was obviously dealing with that at the time and I never knew, despite us being very close. It was clearly something very personal to him.”
Many have testified to Zaliukas’ bubbly personality and McGregor remembers the fun times with his fellow central defender, insisting he did not allow his illness to interfere with his sense of mischief.
“We used to play a two-touch game and if you lost the ball you’d get your ear flicked. So I was getting my ear flicked by Zal about 15 times a day! We got on so well. He had a brilliant sense of humour.”
Both McGregor and Zaliukas left Rangers in August 2015, with the Hibs defender landing his dream move to Leith to play for his boyhood heroes and Zaliukas returning to Lithuania, where he turned out for FK Žalgiris, before retiring three years ago. The pair had lost touch in recent times but McGregor says he was upset to hear of his death at such a young age, adding he will always remember him fondly.
“To die at the age of 36 - a year older than me - can’t help but put things in perspective. I feel for his family, his wife and child.
“He was just starting a new chapter and lost his life to such a debilitating disease. It’s a lesson that we should all appreciate life, what you have and try to be happy on a day to day basis.”
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