Jeff Astle's widow remembers cheerful West Brom legend 20 years after tragic death

"He was very humble about it all and he loved the fans and loved meeting them, even long after he'd retired."

Jeff Astle, West Bromwich Albion.
Jeff Astle, West Bromwich Albion.

The widow of West Bromwich Albion legend Jeff Astle still smiles when she remembers a man who was always glass half-full and loved a joke.

Laraine Astle has been preparing for a difficult day, with January 19 marking 20 years since Jeff died at the age of 59, choking to death at a party celebrating his daughter Dawn's 34th birthday.

He had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia a few years earlier, having noticed issues with his memory when filming Fantasy Football League, and suffered a rapid deterioration from Alzheimer's disease.

She said she had noticed a restlessness in him on a holiday in Ibiza, and pleaded with him to go to a GP. He reluctantly agreed, and underwent a series of tests.

At the end of the consultation, Laraine made an excuse to go back in and see the GP alone.

"The GP said: 'I'm going to send him for a scan, I think he's got early-onset dementia'" Laraine recalls.

"I walked out of there completely and utterly stunned. In the blink of an eye, in the seconds it took to tell me I knew my life had changed forever."

Astle developed an eating disorder, and in his last months could not even remember the names of his children or grandchildren.

Laraine said: "When his grandchildren Taylor and Matthew came to see him his face lit up. I could see him struggling to remember their names,"

"He just said: 'It's my beautiful girl and my bestest boy'."

Jeff Astle was a much-loved figure at West Bromwich Albion, scoring 137 goals in 10 years at the club

Laraine said that the man who died this day in 2002 is not who she chooses to remember, but she instead remembers the kind and generous man who was always happy to chat to Baggies fans before games.

She said: "They absolutely loved him because he mixed with the fans off the field, even after he stopped playing, as we would go to the ground for games and the fans would ask for autographs.

"He would never leave until he had spoken to everyone and signed everything that was handed to him, even as the game had kicked off and that was who he was, a very ordinary man who loved the fans and they loved him."

Jeff Astle enjoyed a stellar footballing career with Notts County and the Baggies, scoring the winning goal for Albion in the 1968 FA Cup final, and representing England at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

Astle is still remembered with huge affection at the Hawthorns, and the family will attend this Saturday's match against Peterborough. His nine-year-old grandson Joseph, a massive Albion fan, will be one of the mascots.

Laraine said it was a nice gesture by the club, who will be marking the 20th anniversary of Astle's death at the game.

She said: "We would have been in the boardroom with the chief executive, but we can't because of Covid. However, they are putting on a box for us and a table for myself in the same room, so we will have a nice meal together as a family.

"It's lovely for the club to go to all this trouble for us and, of course, the icing on the cake is seeing Joseph as one of the mascots, as he has been a fan since he was three and I just know his grandad would be so proud of him."

Jeff Astle's brain was donated to science and, 12 years after a verdict of death by industrial disease, consultant neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart re-examined it in May 2014, and diagnosed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The highlight of Jeff Astle's career was scoring the winning goal in the 1968 FA Cup final against Everton

The family launched the 'Justice for Jeff' campaign which in April 2015 became the Jeff Astle Foundation and works to support other families of former footballers living with dementia.

The Foundation has also led the calls for further, meaningful research into the risks from concussive and sub-concussive injuries to footballers' long-term brain health.

Football has taken more proactive steps to improve safety since that study was published, with heading guidelines in training introduced for under-18s in 2020 and for the professional and adult game last year.

Laraine recalled "tears streaming down her face" in sheer relief when former Football Association chairman Greg Clarke told the family about its plans to make children's football safer.

She said the Astle name was still a familiar one in public, saying that it had been seen in Coronation Street with the Astle Ward at the hospital and through a mention on Not Going Out when the father mistakes Rick Astley for him.

Joseph Allsopp will be a mascot for West Bromwich Albion vs Peterborough United on Saturday, January 22 as the club marks the 20th anniversary of Jeff Astle's death. He is pictured with his grandmother Laraine Astle. Photo: Claire Astle

She said: "He is remembered at Cheltenham Racecourse as he loved the horses and we left some of his ashes on the last fence.

"He was also immensely proud of playing for England, but more proud of the fact that the fans called him the king, as it came directly from them, and when the two lads put the flag up saying 'Astle is King' on the bridge near the ground, he loved that.

"It gave him so much attention as well, even from people who weren't football fans, as we were on holiday in Malta and someone walked up to us and said 'I don't follow the game, but I see your banner whenever I drive past', which was just wonderful.

"If he was here today, I know what he would say, because of his love of the Albion and of the fans, which would be 'I just want them to know that I love them just as much as they loved me'."

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