OLIVER HOLT: A national scandal people still pretend does not exist

OLIVER HOLT: A national scandal that people at the heart of the game still pretend does not exist… football gave us heroes like Nobby Stiles, Sir Bobby Charlton, Mike Sutton and Jeff Astle -and now football is taking them away

  • Football is failing its heroes like Nobby Stiles, Sir Bobby Charlton and Jeff Astle
  • The lack of action over ex-players suffering with dementia is a national scandal
  • There has been denial from the PFA, the FA, the Premier League and FIFA

I have only seen my dad a couple of times since March. He will be 96 later this month and he has Alzheimer’s disease. He is in a care home where he is safe and well looked after by female and male nurses who seem to me like saints and whose compassion and diligence allow me to manage the guilt and the grief that come in equal measure.

The care home is in south Manchester and it has been locked down for much of the past six months so, like hundreds of thousands of other families in this country during the coronavirus crisis, it has been hard to be together.

It is worse for my mum than it is for me because she is alone and bereft, but it is not easy for anyone who has a loved one who suffers with dementia.

Football is failing its former heroes like Sir Bobby Charlton (left) and Nobby Stiles (right)

People like me will tell you it is a strange kind of grief. My dad is still there but, in other ways, he departed some time ago. He lives a half-life and so do those who do not quite know whether he has left them behind or not. He stopped recognising me some time ago. The last time I saw him, in late summer, he looked straight ahead while I was talking, not showing a flicker of recognition.

Before Covid, I would take him for drives up through Pott Shrigley and into the Peak District so he could admire the workmanship of the dry stone walls and the views out over the Cheshire Plain.

As he struggled to place who I was, he would ask me if I had any brothers or sisters. I would try to inject some levity into the situation by telling him I was all he’d got.

My dad didn’t get dementia because of football. He didn’t play football. I don’t think he ever headed a ball in his entire life. That’s not why I mention his disease. I mention it because my dad’s condition gives me a small idea of how agonising it must be for the families of ex-footballers who slip into this nether world much earlier in their lives because of a game they played and dangers they did not understand and who are treated now like our national sport’s guilty secret.  

Stiles (left) died in October following a battle with demential while Charlton (centre) has also been diagnosed with the disease

I mention it because what I know of the disease makes me angry that football is not doing everything it can to help the men who are suffering and their families.

I mention it because I can see football is failing them. I mention it because we reached the point some time ago where the lack of action became a national scandal that people at the heart of the game are still trying to pretend doesn’t really exist.  

At the end of a 10-day period that has seen the death of Nobby Stiles, a much-loved member of the World Cup winning team of 1966, after a long struggle with dementia and the news that Sir Bobby Charlton — that most dignified of men, that most brilliant of players — is suffering from the illness, surely our game cannot look away any longer.

Its attitude is dominated by an unspoken fear of the financial repercussions the sport will face if a link is established beyond doubt between former footballers heading leather balls made thunderously heavy through rain and the damage caused to their brains. Evidence of a link is already there but, to its eternal discredit, football is still desperately trying to ignore it.

It was 18 years ago this month that a coroner ruled Jeff Astle, the ex-West Brom and England striker famed for his ability in the air, died from dementia brought on by repeatedly heading the ball.

It was found that he had a brain similar to that of a boxer but it took the persistence of his widow Laraine and daughter Dawn — and the work of journalists like The Mail on Sunday’s Sam Peters — to force the issue into the open.

A coroner ruled former West Brom and England striker Jeff Astle died from dementia brought on by repeatedly heading the ball

Even in the face of mounting evidence, little has been done. A landmark study last year proved former footballers are three and a half times more likely to develop dementia. It also found they are five times more likely to die of Alzheimer’s, four times more likely to die of Motor Neurone Disease and at a doubled risk of Parkinson’s.

There should have been widespread action long ago but the football authorities in this country are petrified of being plunged into the same situation as American football.

That game has had to confront a nightmarish sequence of player suicides linked to repeated concussions and been forced to accept changes to the way the game is played.

In the same year as Astle’s inquest, a study in the US diagnosed a condition in ex-American footballers called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a neurodegenerative disease associated with repeated head trauma. There was more and more awareness, too, of former players suffering with Alzheimer’s disease.

Awareness grew through more and more high-profile cases. In 2011, former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson, 50, committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest rather than the head so that research could be carried out on his brain. Medics at Boston University duly discovered CTE in his brain.

In response to a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of more than 4,500 ex-players the following year, the NFL agreed to a settlement of $765million in 2014. The final agreement allowed for up to $1billion in compensation for retired players with serious medical conditions linked to repeated head trauma.

Helmet-to-helmet hits were also outlawed. Concussion protocols were introduced.

In 2011, Dave Duerson, committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest rather than the head so that research could be carried out on his brain

And here? Nothing. Or next to nothing. Just denial. And obfuscation. And platitudes. From the PFA. From the FA. From the Premier League. From FIFA. And treating head injuries as an inconvenience. And mocking those who complain about them as ‘politically correct’. And pretending that dissuading kids from heading the ball until they are 12 years old is enough, when it is not enough. When it is nowhere near enough.

Where is the preventative action? Where is the compensation? Where is the financial support for the suffering these men and their families are going through?

Where is the determination to fund more and more studies to make sure these tragedies do not recur?

No wonder men like Chris Sutton, the former Blackburn Rovers striker, whose dad, a former professional player, is stricken by dementia, are angry and distraught.

‘The point is,’ Sutton wrote in a moving piece in the Daily Mail last week, ‘there is a direct link between football and brain injury. The point is that men like my dad, Mike, are dying in the most degrading of ways because of this.’

The awkward truth is that football gave us heroes like Nobby Stiles and Sir Bobby Charlton and Mike Sutton and Jeff Astle and now football is taking them away. 

Let snooker stars add to the drama

The footage of Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Allen arguing with each other during a frame of snooker last week felt strangely compelling because it shattered one of the conventions of the sport. We have sledging in cricket but snooker has always been far too genteel for that.

I have to confess, I thought it had a certain appeal. I noticed Eddie Hearn saying that it made for great TV and I agree. 

If fans can yell at golfers on their backswing during the Ryder Cup, there’s no reason why O’Sullivan shouldn’t be able to stand behind the pocket pulling a face and sticking his tongue out while an opponent tries to pot the yellow.

Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Allen arguing during the snooker last week was entertaining

I contributed to a vote for the Sports Journalists’ Association last week on the greatest British sportsman and sportswoman of the last 71 years (the age of the SJA). I went for Sir Andy Murray and Mary Rand. 

You’re free to disagree. There’s no correct answer. 

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