FA told of dementia link 22 years ago
Baroness Murphy wrote to football chiefs about study Astle’s daughter calls for a parliamentary inquiry
The Jeff Astle Foundation has called for a parliamentary inquiry into past missed warnings over the potential link between football and brain disease amid revelations today that the Football Association was first informed of a possible problem at least 22 years ago.
Baroness Elaine Murphy, who became an independent life peer in 2004, told The Sunday Telegraph that she wrote to the FA in 1995 following a study in the medical journal she was then editing but that the FA “were very short and refuted any such association could exist”.
The article had been prompted by the death of Danny Blanchflower from Alzheimer’s and the experience of staff at Guy’s Hospital in London who had treated several former professional footballers with dementia. It was written by the senior registrar, Dr Jon Spear, and posed the question, “Are professional footballers at risk of developing dementia?” It concluded that “further work should be undertaken to assess the relative risk of Alzheimer’s Disease in former professionals”, beginning with a retrospective case-control study in players.
Yet, it is only now, almost a quarter of a century on and after the Astle family has been contacted by the families of more than 300 ex-players suffering with dementia symptoms, that the FA has commissioned independent research that is expected to largely follow Spear’s recommendation. “I remember writing to the FA and saying they might be interested in this article,” explained Baroness Murphy. “I thought it was worth them being concerned about it and being aware. I got a letter back saying they were sure there was no connection. In retrospect and looking at the evidence, it seems likely that the brain damage caused by heading the ball leads to early presentation of all types of neurodegenerative diseases. It is time the industry, with its fabulous wealth, acknowledged the toll it has taken on its players and their families.”
Astle died seven years after the publication of the article from head injuries sustained through playing football and, while research was then commissioned by the FA and Professional Footballers’ Association, it was considered inconclusive.
Only this year, following the work of the Astle family and a campaign by The Telegraph, has a new more comprehensive project been promised that will specifically answer whether footballers are at a heightened risk of degenerative brain disease. An announcement is expected imminently on who will lead a project that is being jointly funded by the FA and PFA.
The FA’s concussion protocol, which has a mandatory six-day break from play following a suspected concussion, was also only introduced in 2015.
The Astle family said that it was “not surprised in the slightest” to hear that previous warnings were ignored. Dawn Astle, Jeff ’s daughter, has a football magazine from 1958 in which an article is titled “Football’s corridors awash with punch-drunk former players”.
Bryony Hill, the wife of former PFA chief executive Jimmy Hill, who himself died of Alzheimer’s in 2015, also says that he was contacted in the 1970s by a medical expert who was trying to establish a link.
“The big question is what people knew,” said Dawn Astle. “There should be a parliamentary inquiry. They keep talking about what they have done ‘since Jeff died’ but this has been swept under the carpet for years. It would not happen in any other industry. They don’t want people to think football could be a killer.”
An FA spokesman pointed out that new research would start imminently and said that there was no record of any correspondence with Baroness Murphy. “The FA is committed to researching and examining all areas of head injuries in football,” said the spokesman.
At one very basic level, Roy Keane is, of course, right. Chess is, indeed, rather safer than football. The very obvious difference, however, was that we pretty much know and understand the risks of chess. In football, the quite startling inertia of the authorities leaves us all in various states of ignorance although, judging by the rest of Keane’s comments, it seems that few contributors to this particular debate are less acquainted with the facts.
Does it really matter? Should we just accept, as Dawn Astle said to me on Friday, that “Roy Keane is Roy Keane – we listen to the experts”, and all just move on? No. Quite apart from the unnecessary upset Keane has caused some of the suffering families with his casual use of language, the overall tone of his message was potentially dangerous.
On the first point, it was no great surprise to hear Astle also describe herself as “angry and upset” at his “insensitive” comments. Not only was there the comparison to chess, but also a repeated use of the phrase “it’s part of the game” and, perhaps worst of all, “knocks” to describe these sorts of injuries. Knocks? It is not pleasant to outline the reality that is facing literally hundreds of former players but, when one of football’s more influential and usually intelligent figures speaks out so contentiously, it surely becomes necessary.
These are “knocks” that, if the suspected link between football and dementia is established, can manifest themselves several decades later into the premature disintegration of a person’s brain. We emphatically are not talking about the sort of “knocks” that you run off or even eventually get fixed on an operating table.
For Jeff Astle, who was 54 when he first became seriously ill, it meant not knowing that he scored the winning goal in the FA Cup final. It meant not knowing the difference between food and washing powder. It meant ultimately dying in front of his family while he choked because his brain had forgotten how to eat.
For Frank Kopel, who was diagnosed with dementia at the age of 59, it meant being unable to walk, sit or feed himself. It meant becoming incontinent, having hallucinations and tremors.
For Nobby Stiles, a legend like Keane in the Manchester United midfield, it has meant a 16-year battle with Alzheimer’s that has left him largely asleep and, at the age still of only 75, barely able to recognise his family.
These were certainly all brave men who, as Keane pointed out in the case of Ireland striker Kevin Doyle, who has just retired due to persistent headaches, could probably dish it out as well as take it. But when Keane says “you know yourself there is a chance you might get hurt”, does he really mean getting damaged like this? Is he seriously saying that these men knew that their lives could irrevocably crumble before they reached 60?
And when people tell you that even non-footballers get dementia, it is worth pointing out that the odds of a diagnosis in the wider population between the ages of 40 and 65 are one in 1,400. We do not yet know if it is higher in football because no one has completed the research even though, as revealed today by The Sunday Telegraph, clear anecdotal warnings were being received at least 22 years ago.
“It does upset me and make me angry to hear someone trivialise it,” said Astle. “It was insensitive. I am not fighting this campaign for me but because other people who should have been leading it – like the PFA – have not got it done. I would be neglecting what is right if I walked away from this. It is about protecting players and is not just about the past, but also the future.”
In fairness to Keane, he did also agree with the proposition that research was needed and Doyle was right to retire. Yet the macho “take it or leave it” feel to his wider observations were badly misguided. As if it would be impossible to lessen risk at least in children’s football, where young brains are still developing, if a problem was found.
Or as if we could not still raise awareness and improve upon a concussion protocol in senior football that depends not on independent doctors to make a risk assessment, but often just a few seconds with club doctors who themselves admit they often feel under huge pressure to keep players on the pitch.
There also seems to be a misunderstanding of what campaigners want and an almost instinctive and irrational desire to preserve football in its exact current form, even when quite simple changes could mitigate risk. Not one campaigner is calling for a ban on heading for adults who are old enough to make their own decisions. What they do want is some closure, some answers, the ability for people to make informed decisions and a mature look at how football could be made safer, especially for young children.
They are not even asking for any compensation, although they do wonder if football, with its fabulous wealth, could do more to support families of former heroes; some of whom are being forced to sell their own homes to cover care costs.
As the neuropathologist Dr Michael Grey also stressed: “It is about risk management, but you can’t understand risk if you don’t do the research. I was surprised to hear what Roy Keane said. It is sad. Really, really unfortunate. Most professionals are not making those sorts of remarks any more. I think we are seeing a cultural change but when you hear something like this, it makes you realise that we still have a long way to go.”
Early death: Jeff Astle died in 2002 from head injuries sustained playing football
Family’s anguish: Dawn Astle (left) and her mother Laraine remember the football star