Stuart Rayner on John Stiles’s urgent plea for action on dementia in football

Former Leeds United midfielder John Stiles says a Government report must be backed up with action to force the “dinosaur” running English football to act properly on dementia.

Stiles has stepped up his criticism of the Football Association (FA) since his father, World Cup winner and ex-Manchester United and Middlesbrough midfielder Nobby, died in October having suffered advanced dementia for years.

It is an alarmingly common problem for former footballers.

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This month saw the first anniversary of Leeds legend Jack Charlton’s death when in the grip of a disease his brother Sir Bobby suffers from. Stiles is “terrified” it will get him too, as it has his former Leeds and Doncaster Rovers team-mate Brendon Ormsby.

WORLD CUP HEROES: Nobby Stiles, right, and Jack Charlton, centre, both died of dementia, while Sir Bobby Charlton, left, also suffers from the disease. Picture: Dave Benett/Getty Images.

Ernie Moss, a Doncaster and Scarborough striker in the 1980s, Hull City great Chris Chilton and Huddersfield Town legend Frank Worthington were all dementia sufferers when they died in recent months. In February Gordon McQueen’s family revealed he is one of many other victims.

So Stiles hopes a damning Department of Culture, Media and Sport report brings change, but believes it will only happen if the FA are pushed into it.

“Maybe if they back this up with action, maybe something can be done about the scandal that’s been going on for God knows how many years, especially since Jeff Astle’s diagnosis (in 2002),” said Stiles. “Players have been ignored when it’s perfectly obvious what’s been happening.”

Julian Knight, who chaired the committee behind yesterday’s report into all sports, called for a minimum standard concussion protocol to reduce the risk of brain injuries. Knight said it was incredible the Health and Safety Executive let sport “mark its own homework”, adding: “The failure to address the issue of acquired brain injury is compounded by a lack of action by Government [which has] instead relied on unaccountable sporting bodies.”

Last month a brain injury charity was critical when Benjamin Pavard played on despite claiming he was knocked out playing for France against Germany at the European Championship. UEFA were happy France’s medical team acted correctly.

On the day the interim findings of a fan-led review into football called for an independent regulator, Stiles said it must be forced to act on dementia too.

“It shouldn’t be allowed to police itself because it can’t and won’t,” he insisted. “They’ve failed in their duty of care.

“The FA is an old dinosaur that is not fit for purpose.

“Charlotte Cowie, the chief medical officer at the FA, was asked [by a House of Commons select committee in March] what was the budget for research [into links between football and dementia] and she couldn’t tell them. That’s how bad it is.

“I cannot see the FA changing the way they have been, which has been to be in complete denial, but I hope they do, I hope this brings more pressure because families are suffering terribly.”

The FA and players union the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) have contributed to studies on links between heading and dementia since in 2002 a coroner ruled former England striker Astle died of an “industrial disease” but the investment has been miniscule for bodies of their resources and the seriousness of the problem, and progress unsurprisingly slow.

Stiles claims they are scared of the consequences, leaving him and his former team-mates to do the worrying instead.

“They’re terrified of the brand being marred,” the 57-year-old insisted. “It’s purely commercial.

“I speak to a lot of ex-players approaching their mid- to late-50s terrified of early onset dementia and we need to be because it’s rife.

“I’ve got a grandson, he’s only six, but if he starts to go to a club and train there’s no way I’ll be having him heading the ball.

“Heading the ball damages your brain. It’s not rocket science. It’s an intricate piece of jelly in a hard case and every time you head the ball, it bleeds.

“I wasn’t a great player. I was the first Leeds United player ever to be substituted but when dad died there was an outpouring so I tried to make a difference for the families.

“Whether you were a great footballer or not such a great footballer your brain’s going to get damaged in the same way. Dad’s profile just meant that for a little while people might listen to us.”

The PFA responded to yesterday’s report by saying it is “working on a comprehensive strategy” and “fully committed to using our voice and status within the game to drive progress, awareness, and action”.

Now Conservative MP Knight’s voice has joined the clamour, Stiles is hoping it will finally be listened to.