Matt Maher: Astle family deserve every success in their long fight

For Dawn Astle the past few weeks have delivered cause for cautious optimism.

Jeff Astle’s daughter Dawn, at the gatesnamed in her father’s honour at The Hawthorns, has led the campaignto highlight the dangers posedto footballers from heading a ball
Jeff Astle’s daughter Dawn, at the gatesnamed in her father’s honour at The Hawthorns, has led the campaignto highlight the dangers posedto footballers from heading a ball

Optimism because there are signs football might finally be about to properly address its dementia crisis.

Caution because after nearly two decades of campaigning, she has learned those governing the game often find words far easier to deliver than action.

It is 18 years ago this month a coroner ruled the death of her father, Albion and England legend Jeff, was the result of an industrial disease caused by repeatedly heading a football.

For a long time Dawn, along with her mother Laraine and sister Claire, were among just a handful of voices urging the sport’s leaders to take notice. Many more are talking now – and being heard – because the stories of former heroes ravaged by brain disease have kept coming, just as the Astle family warned they would.

The death last month of Nobby Stiles, who suffered with dementia, and the subsequent revelation his England World Cup-winning team-mate Bobby Charlton has been diagnosed with the disease has placed the issue in the spotlight like never before. “We knew this wasn’t just going to disappear,” says Dawn. “We always knew at some point it would be back with a bang and people would start to realise the full extent of the problem. Now it is about doing the right thing by those former players who are suffering but also doing whatever possible to protect those playing today.”

That last comment might raise eyebrows for anyone still under impression the link between dementia and football is an historic issue, only affecting players from the era when the ball was heavier and – according to Baggies great Astle – like ‘heading a bag of bricks’.

Yet while modern balls might be a little lighter, they travel through the air far quicker, meaning their impact can be just as damaging, or perhaps more so. Recent research by the Liverpool Hope University found a majority of players failed a pitchside concussion test after just 20 headers, while another study showed there was an immediate disruption in normal brain function and a significant reduction in memory function following as few as 20 headers from a corner kick.

Over in the US, meanwhile, research by Purdue University claimed sessions practising headers direct from goal-kicks generated similar G-force as an American football tackle or a boxer’s punch.

The long-term implications for the sport could be considerable and though proving a direct link between heading a football and dementia could take decades, many scientists leading the research believe the balance of probability now suggests it is responsible.

Dr Willie Stewart, who led the landmark study which last year established a definite link between football and brain disease, has suggested a break of 48 hours between sessions of 20 headers, while the PFA has called for restrictions to be introduced this season on heading in training.

“Making just a few changes could have a huge difference,” says Dawn. “Limiting heading in training is achievable and reasonable and it could save a life.”

The PFA has for a long time been criticised for its failure to take the issue seriously and provide adequate support, understandable when you consider last year the benevolent fund toward which families could apply for care costs stood at just £565,000 – or less than a third of outgoing chief executive Gordon Taylor’s £2million salary.

Scepticism, unsurprisingly, remains. Chris Sutton, whose dad Mike is a former player now suffering with dementia, yesterday announced he would not join the PFA’s planned dementia taskforce after dismissing it as a ‘time-buying PR exercise’. Both Sutton and John Stiles, the son of Nobby, were angered by PFA assistant chief executive Simon Barker’s suggestion no family who had approached the organisation for help had been turned down.

“The comments made my blood boil,” said Sutton. “They sum up what the PFA is. It’s actually fake news. They can’t substantiate what they are saying.”

Dawn, who has previously called for Taylor to resign over his handling, is keeping a watching brief for now but insists any taskforce must engage the families of players suffering illness and not simply consist of long-standing PFA executives.

Calling for those families to receive adequate support has long been a key aspect of her tireless campaign. A submission for dementia in football to be classified as an industrial disease would, if successful, make compensation claims easier and provide greater financial help.

Dawn references a recent online appeal to raise funds for Hull’s all-time leading goalscorer Chris Chilton, who is suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s.

“Fans raised more than £30,000, which is great but it shouldn’t be down to them,” she says. “The sport has a duty of care to look after these players and these families and ensure they are properly supported. It would happen in every other industry, so why not football?”

It has taken a lot of time and effort to get this far and in many respects the story is only just beginning.

This is not a fight the Astle family ever wanted, yet is one they have taken on and the game should be grateful.

“If we can help those suffering with illness and make the game safer for the current and future generations, that will be the legacy for my dad,” says Dawn.

“It isn’t an easy subject for people to talk about. Many find it uncomfortable but it is reality. This is happening and it cannot be ignored any longer.”

Top Stories

More from the Express & Star

UK & International News