The Other Issue Facing Football

Credit Graham Burrell

For a couple of seasons, on my way to my then seat in the Selenity Stand before a game, I’d stop for a few minutes and watch the players go through their warm up routines at the Stacey West end of the ground, writes Richard Godson.

One of these involved the back four lining up and heading high balls that were lobbed at them by a couple of the coaching staff. First it was Wood, Raggett, Waterfall and Habergham. More recently Neal Eardley would be nearest the goal, then there would be Jason Shackell and Michael Bostwick with Harry Toffolo nearest the touch line. It was a routine which, when I look back on it carried with it a certain competitive edge, machismo if you like, with each player seemingly vying to head it the farthest. I was reminded of this when I read something in the paper on Friday. Geoff Hurst, in conversation with Chris Sutton (yes, him) said “You head the ball far more times in practice than you do in a game”.

I bring this up because there is a growing recognition of a possible link between footballers heading the ball and dementia in former players. The Daily Mail (I know) have labelled it Football’s Dementia Scandal. Whatever you may think about the Mail and the rest of Fleet Street’s finest for that matter, it does have a reputation for having its finger on the pulse so to speak and has mounted some pretty forceful and worthwhile campaigns over the years. Its long running battle demanding justice for murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence was a particularly high profile one even going so far as accusing five suspects who were not charged of being the killers, daring them, goading them even to sue the paper. They never did. The Mail has now launched a 7-Point Charter to tackle (no pun intended) the heading/dementia issue.

courtesy of Graham Burrell

In the forefront of this is their football writer, former Celtic, Norwich and Blackburn striker (and Lincoln City manager) Chris Sutton. Yes, I know, Imps supporters don’t have particularly fond memories of his time in the Sincil Bank hot seat but bear with me on this one. There is a reason Chris is fronting this campaign and it’s not because he happens to be one of Sportsmail’s football writers. It’s much more personal than that.

Chris’s father, former footballer Mike Sutton is dying of dementia.

Whatever personal hell Mike Sutton is enduring, for his loved ones to have to look on, powerless to do anything arrest the progress of his condition, waiting instead for the lights of his life to go out is a barely endurable agony. Seven years ago I watched in despair as my own father finally succumbed to the ravages of vascular dementia after a decade of unremitting and inexorable decline during which the disease killed his brain cell by cell. It began with occasional forgetfulness that became more and more frequent, causing him to almost rage with frustration before it progressed from being unable to dress himself to a point where he seemingly left our world and entered one of his own, finding an almost childlike delight in the company of the likeminded souls he was keeping. Almost to the end I was able to convince myself he knew who I was as I visited him every Saturday morning in the care home where he spent the final two years of his life but in all honesty, I was probably kidding myself. A month before he died, it was his 82nd birthday and my stepmother baked him a cake and put a solitary candle on it. Poor Dad: he hadn’t a clue how to blow it out.

So, believe me, I know exactly how Chris Sutton and his family are feeling right now and what they are going through and they have my deepest sympathy.

Mike Sutton isn’t the first former footballer to be so afflicted and he won’t be the last. This problem first surfaced when West Bromwich Albion legend Jeff Astle was diagnosed and for long enough after, his daughter Dawn has been a seemingly lone voice trying to raise awareness of this debilitating condition among ex-players. Now more legends of the game are known to be sufferers. Nobby Stiles who died recently was a victim as we now know, is his Manchester United and England colleague Sir Bobby Charlton. Two heroes of the England World Cup winning side of 1966, heroes of my childhood. It hardly bears thinking about. It was a thing a few years back to be able to say where you were when President Kennedy was shot and later, where you were when the Twin Towers were hit. Well for me it has always been remembering where I was when England won the World Cup. We were on our family summer holiday at Salcombe in Devon and I sat with my Dad (my all time hero), my Uncle George and my cousin Steve watching and cheering and laughing as Nobby danced around the Wembley turf, false teeth in one hand and Jules Rimet Trophy in the other. And now he is gone, brought down by what can only be described as an industrial disease.

Jeff Astle

For all their fame and the adulation heaped upon them, even the top players of that era were relatively modestly paid, coming generally from humble backgrounds; indeed from the very streets where their fans also lived. And whether a footballer plied his trade in the first division or the fourth he wasn’t going to earn the stratospheric sums of today’s top flight stars. Not that the size of your wage packet is any defence against injury then or now, be it a medial ligament or that most vital organ of all, your brain. Dementia is no respecter of wealth or prosperity. My father was, you could say, comfortably enough circumstanced. It wasn’t heading a football that did for him but a mild stroke and a bleed on the brain which is thought to have triggered his dementia. And let’s face it, footballers in the lower reaches of the football league, for all that they are relatively well paid compared with generations of old, run the same risks as the premier league stars and for a fraction of the salary.

Some have said that the ball was heavier back in those days as if the problem will go away with the lighter balls of the modern age. Such sentiments are sadly delusional. Studies have shown that it is not the weight of the ball that is the chief cause of the shock suffered by the brain when the ball is headed but its velocity. Rest assured, there will be professional footballers playing the game today who will succumb to dementia in the coming decades, perhaps even among that back four I would watch on my way to my seat before a game.

Courtesy Graham Burrell

If there is a silver lining to this tragedy, it is that Dawn Astle is no longer a lone voice trying to make herself heard amid a cacophony of competing causes, each and every one of them worthy in its own right. Now however with growing awareness of a possible link between heading the ball and dementia, coupled with some of our greatest ever players falling victim, a national newspaper has taken up cudgels and has published a 7-point charter which is receiving growing support and backing from notable figures within the game. I reproduce it here.

  • Increased funding from the FA and PFA for independent research into dementia and its links to football.
  • The PFA to provide respite for families and carers of former footballers living with dementia.
  • The PFA to appoint a dedicated ‘dementia team’ and work with, promote and financially assist Alzheimer’s Society’s Sport United Against Dementia (SUAD) campaign and Dementia Connect support line.
  • The PFA to help fund regular social events for people living with dementia and their carers.
  • Dementia to be formally recognised as an industrial disease.
  • Football’s lawmakers, IFAB, to immediately ratify temporary concussion replacements.
  • Clubs to limit heading at all levels including professional. Maximum of 20 headers per session in training. Minimum of 48 hours between sessions.

In its Friday edition the Mail had a bit of a go at the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) for dragging its heels comparing the £375,000 it had put into dementia research in 2018 and 2019 decidedly unfavourably with the £2 million annual salary of chief exec Gordon Taylor. Responding to the Mail’s charter the PFA said it already offered respite care for members. The Mail’s riposte was to claim that this is at odds with the experiences of many PFA members. However it did recognise that the PFA supports its call for dementia to be considered an industrial disease and for the concussion replacements law change. Nonetheless the PFA apparently did not respond to the call to limit headers in training sessions. Chris Sutton is said to be furious at this last omission and given what he is going through right now, I can understand his frustration.

Look, the Mail is on a mission here. It’s out to ruffle a few feathers and is not particularly bothered who they belong to. For whatever reason and I believe that reason is genuine, it has decided this is a campaign that must be waged for the sake of those upon whose exploits they depend for their copy; for the stories we read over our bowl of cornflakes each morning and whose exploits give us fans the whole range of emotions on a Saturday afternoon from ecstasy to agony, from joy to misery and from pleasure to pain.

In this I support them and Chris Sutton too.