OPINION: Our heroes of yesteryear deserve answers now
As one of the great football tournaments, Euro 2016, fills our television screens, a campaign is under way for the sport to do more to research its link with dementia. And quite rightly so.
Former England and West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle, a Midlands hero for scoring an FA Cup Final winner in the 1960s and a member of the 1970 World Cup squad, passed away 14 years ago. An inquest verdict was that he died from an industrial disease caused by damage to his brain from playing football.
It is said that heading the old-style heavy leather balls, as well as persistent heading and collisions, is putting players at risk of future problems with dementia-type conditions.
Closer to home, our own Ernie Moss — Chesterfield’s leading scorer of all time and a former Mansfield Town favourite —was diagnosed with dementia three years ago and a special fundraising match was held just a few weeks ago to raise money for him.
Chesterfield legends and celebrities celebrated the great man at a terrific afternoon at the Proact Stadium — but questions remain for his family, as for so many others, as to how the disease started.
At the inquest into Astle’s death it was agreed that the Football Association and Professional Footballers’ Association would look into the risks of repeated heading of footballs. Their study was never published.
Why? What has the game got to hide? Was the Astle case and a few others that have emerged since the tip of the iceberg or just in line with statistics in life generally?
Well, for me, it could be the tip of that iceberg.
Geoff Hurst, the 1966 World Cup Final hero with that marvellous hat-trick in the 4-2 extra-time win over West Germany, was in the East Midlands recently reminiscing about that memorable day 30 years ago.
England were crowned world champions for the only time in their history. The match has been replayed on TV recently and several documentaries have been aired.
It is fascinating to go down memory lane and see how much football has changed in the intervening 50 years.
Many of the players were not household names at the time, they could walk down the streets without necessarily being recognised and they didn’t get the millions of pounds that any England team winning a World Cup would be sure to receive now.
But what has happened to Hurst’s teammates since?
Remarkably four of the eight surviving players from that great team are said to be suffering memory loss issues — Martin Peters, Nobby Stiles and Ray Wilson have been reported to have Alzheimer’s. Jack Charlton is said to have memory loss.
Researchers say looking at other teams from that era produces similar results — a far greater incidence of dementia among 11 men than you would get elsewhere.
For example, they claim at least four of Tottenham’s double-winning team of 1960-61 were struck down with the disease before the age of 80 — Danny Blanchflower, Dave Mackay, Peter Baker and Ron Henry.
Five of the Aston Villa team that won the FA Cup in 1957 ended up suffering with dementia.
Doctors say one incidence out of 11 might be expected, but not four, five or six.
At last the Football Association, the Professional Footballers Association and the Professional Game Board have promised an investigation and have asked FIFA to take a look.
The Jeff Astle Foundation, a charity set up in memory of the former WBA striker, says it knows of 300 former players who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
We owe it to the boys of 66 as well as all the other players from that era to look after them as well as to try to prevent future problems for others if there is found to be a widespread problem.
It could be that the memory-loss issues have only been caused by the old-style balls and that there will be no similar problems going forward for today’s players.
It could be that there is no link at all.
It could be health and safety gone mad.
But we need answers so that players can be better informed of any future risks – if there are any.