Stuart Rayner - Football taskforce needs to urgently examine brain injury diseases

As challenges go, it was as crunching as any his famous father put in.
English football legends Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)English football legends Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
English football legends Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“How can it be that players are left to struggle when the Premier League receives £3bn a year?” asked former Leeds United and Doncaster Rovers midfielder John Stiles this week, following the death of his father, dementia sufferer Nobby.

He knew the answer, as we all do: it cannot.

Quickly after Nobby’s death it was revealed Sir Bobby Charlton also has dementia. With Jack Charlton, Martin Peters and Ray Wilson, half of England’s World Cup-winning outfield players have had the disease.

The late John Charles did too.

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In their era it did not matter whether you were a legend, as Charles and Jack Charlton were at Leeds United, or run-of-the-mill player, getting by financially could still be tough even without medical care to pay for. In 2010 Stiles had to sell his World and European Cup medals. It was a day of shame for English football.

This week players’ union the Professional Footballers’ Association promised a taskforce to further examine brain injury diseases in football.

We should probably be glad an organisation better at blocking than facilitating action in 2020 stirred itself but even one of those due to take part – Chris Sutton, son of former professional and dementia sufferer Mike is sceptical.

“This cannot be something that pays lip service,” he warned.

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Much to John Stiles’s anger, the PFA argue there is no definitive link between heading and dementia but who is to blame for that?

Dr Michael Grey is leading a £1m study, SCORES, to better understand cognitive health in former players.

“They have done the bare minimum in terms of research,” he said of the PFA and Football Association when discussing the issue in The Yorkshire Post in March. “They’re not supporting the SCORES project whatsoever.”

The coroner who looked at Jeff Astle’s death classed his chronic traumatic encephalopathy as an “industrial disease” partly caused by heading footballs. That was 18 years ago.

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Last year an FA and PFA-funded University of Glasgow study found former professionals had an approximately three-and-a-half-times higher rate of neurodegenerative disease and a five-fold increase in risk of Alzheimer’s Disease.

This week Liverpool Hope University published research into “cognitive function” before and immediately after heading 20 times. It showed “working memory” declined by as much as 20 per cent, and the vast majority displayed signs of concussion.

The PFA is threatening legal action over this season’s League One and Two wage caps. Their opposition frustrated attempts to introduce League-wide wage deferrals to help clubs struggling badly because of coronavirus.

But looking after their members is about more than just stopping attempts to eat into their wages. As the union recognises in so many other ways, it is after playing most professionals need more help.

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The PFA is reportedly sitting on reserves of around £55m. Spending some of that to find out as soon as possible the part heading old, heavy leather footballs played in the tragic demise of Stiles and co would be far more important than anything they can do over pay. Finding if and how future and present players need protecting against lighter but, Liverpool Hope’s research suggests, still damaging modern balls is urgent too.

The PFA’s new taskforce is a welcome step in the right direction, but only a baby step.

Footballers and those of us who treasure them should watch carefully to see that they break into a sprint pretty soon.

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