IN early January I sat in a BBC radio studio with Chris Sutton and Andy Townsend. It was a Monday Night Club, and the opening subject was head injuries. The two ex-players spoke about their own fathers, with sadness and a sense of anger.
Both dads were footballers themselves. Both played in the 1960s, that era when the world, including medically, was modernising – but with hindsight too slowly for sportsmen and women. It remained a time of career-ending injuries across the sports and of grave risk-taking with competitors in specific ones like boxing, cricket and motor-racing.
And in football still an age of ignorance where - particularly if you were a centre forward – part of training was heading over and over an often sodden, heavy leather ball. They even used medicine balls at some clubs, to strengthen neck muscles and stiffen courage. Chris and Andy’s fathers practicised in this way. Now both live in the dire fog of dementia.
In the last few years – so belatedly, you can see now – football has woken up to the dangers of repeat head impacts and the very likely damage done to the heroes of its past. The family of Jeff Astle, the former West Brom and England striker, were among the first to push for justice for ex-players who develop Alzheimers or other forms of dementia after a professional life of continually heading footballers.
There are hundreds, probably thousands of these. Jeff Astle was one. Among those of England’s 1966 World Cup winning team who are still alive, the proportion of dementia sufferers is frightening. A sad story from Germany: Gerd Muller, ‘Der Bomber’, once the world’s greatest poacher, languishes in a nursing home having lived with dementia for many years.
Before he needed full-time care Bayern Munich, his former club, did their best to look after him. Club president Uli Hoeness, and another close friend of Muller, devised a strategy: early each morning a car would pick the old striker up and take him to the Bayern training ground at Sabener Strasse. Muller would get a massage from his old physio from the 1970s and his old pals would come over while he was being rubbed down. “How are you Bomber? Ready for the weekend? We need you, it’s a big game.”
This poignant routine kept Muller going before his condition worsened. Throughout football there are fallen heroes like this – paying the saddest price for a game that put itself first, over its participants, in their day. And yet…has football really changed? It’s dementia problem should be the source of outrage, a scandal bringing the public to action, players unions into overdrive and its hierarchy to book.
Instead there is apathy. Clubs focus on their next transfer or commercial partnership, fans fixate on the modern circus and the Professional Footballers Association? For the £20m per year they get from the Premier League, and £3.4m they paid chief executive Gordon Taylor last year, goodness knows what - on the big issues - they really do.
Old players, risking brain injuries by heading medicine balls and now with dementia? It would bring another industry to its knees.
We have seen recently, with Barry Bennell and the child abuse scandal, how badly football reacts to serious issues that have the potential to damage brands, clubs, men of power, and the general unfettered pursuit of money. The dementia inertia is another example. There should be studies done, campaigns held, resources diverted to damaged former players – but of course there is a risk of lawsuits and compensation claims. So the general attitude seems to be to hope it goes away.
Thank goodness for newspapers. Yes, I am biased. But just like the Guardian led the way on child abuse, so The Telegraph and its brilliant Jeremy Wilson keeps pushing the dementia issue: without the papers it may have never even come to light. Those who say the press is ‘an irrelevance these days’ have never actually given the press a moment’s proper thought. You think club websites and fan blogs are going to uncover corporate malpractice of the sort seemingly linked to dementia?
Players, thankfully, no longer practice by heading the heavy ball – but, despite guidelines, on-field concussions aren’t always dealt with well. And we still lack studies, data. What is the impact, upon players, of repeatedly heading even light modern balls?
Dementia is the neglected corner of mental health – despite the huge numbers who suffer it – and the dementia problem is football’s neglected corner of shame.