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21 August 2021

Footballers with Dementia

Tag(s): Sport, Health
There has been a lot of sad news recently, but one of the saddest pieces of news this week for me personally was the news that Denis Law, one of my favourite footballers of all time, has had Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia diagnosed at the age of 81. I started watching Manchester United in 1961, 60 years ago this autumn, and the following summer the most important step that Matt Busby took in rebuilding the side after the disastrous air crash in Munich 1958, was the signing of Denis Law from Torino, for the then record British transfer fee of £115,000. This summer Manchester City signed Jack Grealish from Aston Villa for £100 million and so inflation in transfer fees over 60 years is very close to 1000%.

But Law was worth every penny. The following season they won the FA Cup and then with the emergence of George Best and the continuing great form of Munich survivor Sir Bobby Charlton went on to win the football league twice in the next few years culminating in the European Cup win in 1968. Law was injured for the European Cup final against Benfica but overall, he scored 237 goals in 404 appearances for United and played 55 times for Scotland. Only Wayne Rooney and Charlton have scored more goals for the club than Law, and he is as still affectionately known as “The King” by United supporters.

“I am at the point where I feel I want to be open about my condition,” Law said. “I have been diagnosed with mixed dementia, which is more than one type of dementia, in my case this being Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. This has been an extremely difficult year for everyone, and the long periods of isolation have certainly not helped.

“I do understand what is happening and that is why I want to address my situation now while I am able, because I know there will be days when I don’t understand, and I hate the thought of that. I know the road ahead will be hard, demanding, painful and ever-changing. I have good days and bad days and aim to take each day as it comes, adjusting my lifestyle accordingly.”

Law is the eighth member of Sir Matt Busby’s 1967-68 squad who is known to have had dementia diagnosed. Last year, at the age of 83, Charlton also had the disease diagnosed. Nobby Stiles, the World Cup winning midfielder, had prostate cancer and dementia when he died age 78 in November 2020. Bill Foulkes died of dementia aged 81 in November 2013. Tony Dunne, one of the greatest of all left backs, died in June 2020 at the age of 78 having suffered with dementia.  David Herd, a centre forward of the classic style who played for Scotland, died in 2016 from dementia aged 82.  Frank Kopel died aged 65 in 2014 after having a mixture of vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s diagnosed. And John Fitzpatrick also died of dementia aged 74 in December 2020. Many of their relatives believe that heading the ball contributed to the condition.

“It is an incredibly challenging and problematic disease and I have witnessed many friends go through this,” Law said. “You hope that it won’t happen to you, even make jokes about it while ignoring the early signs because you don’t want it to be true. You get angry, frustrated, confused and then worried for your family, as they will be the ones dealing with it.

“However, the time has come to tackle it head-on, excuse the pun. I recognise how my brain is deteriorating and how my memory evades me and how this causes me distress in situations that are beyond my control.

“I don’t want people to be saddened if I forget places, people or dates because you need to remember I enjoyed all those memories and I am lucky to have experienced what I have in my life – a loving and supportive family, a great career doing what I loved and getting paid to do it, and lifelong friends.”

Among growing concerns about former players developing brain disease, new restrictions on heading in training have come into force in professional football in England this month. But some experts have questioned whether there has been a proper scientific basis in deciding the limit that has been imposed.

Players in both the men’s and women’s game are restricted to 10 high-impact headers a week while amateurs are limited to one heading session a week. Back in 2019 it was found that professional footballers were 3½ times more likely to die from dementia than people of the same age in the general population. At that time UK football authorities responded by announcing a ban on primary schoolchildren heading in training, with restrictions on youth players.

As I said, this is a very sad situation and particularly when it affects one of one’s heroes. However, I do not believe enough thought is being given to the way in which the game has changed since the 1960s. Back then the football was made of leather and while the laws stated what its dimensions and weight should be, that only applied at the start of a game. But many games were played in wet conditions – even if it were not raining, the pitch would very often be wet, even muddy and this applied even at the top of the professional game. By the end of the season in those days the Old Trafford pitch, now immaculate for every match throughout the year, would have no grass at all in the goalmouth where it had all been worn away.

What this meant was that in damp conditions the ball would become heavier and heavier and yet in those days much of the match was played with a ball being kicked by the goalkeeper more than halfway up the pitch where the centre half and centre forward would dual for the ball with one of them winning it in the air. There can be little doubt that the force of this on a continuous basis through seasons of 50 or more matches could have had a very serious effect, let alone what was also happening in training.

However, today not only are the pitches immaculate but so are the balls. They are made to a much higher standard with a laminate covering that keeps the moisture out. If conditions are wet the players use a towel to dry the ball before throwing it in. Back in the ‘60s such an exercise would have been utterly fruitless as the ball was so wet that a towel would not dry it. I’m not saying that every effort should not be made to understand what might the impact of heading be today but I have no doubt that it would not be anything like as bad as it was 50 and 60 years ago.

While not suggesting for a second that my own football career bears any comparison to the stars to which I have referred in this blog, I did play to a reasonable standard. I was small for my age but quick. Although not particularly gifted, I taught myself dribbling and passing skills. This was at the expense of my father’s roses.  I grew expert in repairing plastic balls that were punctured on his thorns. I played my first representative games for the Cubs and then the Choir and finally the School. I played inside or outside left and was a regular for the second eleven at Manchester Grammar School.

My greatest success was in the USA. As an exchange student I was fortunate to be sent to a soccer-playing school. Blake had an average American football team but a pretty good record at soccer under a highly effective coach, Jack Fecht. The previous year the AFS student was a football wizard from Brazil. I had something to live up to.

Because of the severe winters in Minnesota the season was confined to the fall. We played a total of 10 matches, just six of which were conference.

We beat St Thomas Academy, Shattuck Academy (Marlon Brando’s old school) and Cretin. We drew with Breck and Benilde and came to the last game against Minnehaha with the classic situation where whichever school won would win the championship. By this time our matches were covered in the local press. Sport in American high schools has a much higher profile than in the UK. I had scored eight of our 12 goals and my reputation had gone before me. In the match I was closely marked: too closely as a redheaded chap kicked me every time I got the ball. Mr Fecht complained to the Russian referee at half-time but with little effect. Finally, I scored a not very elegant goal, bundling the ball in with my chest. The referee mistakenly disallowed it for handball and in frustration I kicked out at the redhead. I got him on both shins, and he was substituted. Within minutes I had scored and then set up a second for our captain, Gregg Peterson. After the game I went up to the redhead, shook hands and congratulated him on his excellent play. We had won the Western division championship of the Minnesota High School League. I was awarded All-Conference Honours and voted Most Valuable Player by the coaches.

In celebration Jack Fecht asked, “why do people take drugs when they can get high like this?” I knew what he meant.
At New College I was a regular in the first team, playing on the left of midfield in a 4-3-3 formation. We played in the first division and finished mid-table except in my final year when we were relegated. This upset me, as there was no opportunity for those of us who were leaving to get our place back. I tried out for the University team, probably the highest level I reached. I played as a lone striker against two strong centre halves. It was a good test of my work rate but little else. Years later I took a party of Sony dealers to Rome to see England qualify for the World Cup. Dennis Tueart of Manchester City and England hosted our tour and over lunch we all lied about the highest level we had reached in our playing career, but I told the truth about this trial.

The reason for my going into the detail of my football career was I scored quite a number of goals.  In my 10-year career of representative football I played in 133 matches and scored 87 goals, even though much of my football was played from midfield or the wing. Only one of those 87 goals was scored with my head and that was a fluke as I couldn’t get out of the way of a corner.

I would never head the ball when the conditions were wet and indeed sometimes the conditions were so wet that we were playing in mud with pools of water on the ground. Yes, you can kick the ball through such a pool but most of us would always avoid heading a wet ball.

During my Sony career I had the pleasure of meeting Denis Law in person. The first occasion was after a match at Old Trafford where I was hosted by the sponsor of the Rumbelows League Cup. In the board room afterwards Sir Bobby Charlton  offered me a cup of tea but Denis offered me a whisky. Then on a Sony dealer trip to Thailand we had several top footballers join us for dinner and a quiz evening. Denis was on my team, of course.

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