Dementia – a sad legacy of the beautiful game

A special feature by Stuart Broom
Former captain of Lyme Regis Football Club

WITH a second lockdown and the early onset of the dark winter nights, the lack of opportunities outdoors has given me more time on my hands.

Unable to play my weekly walking football where a bunch of old codgers relive the “glory days” between threading a few passes past the opposition and occasionally finding the net, it started me thinking again about football and the way things have changed since I was playing.

There have been many changes to the game over the past 40 years since I finished playing; some good, some bad, but one serious legacy that has surfaced over the past few years is the number of former footballers suffering from dementia due to heading the ball.

This has been highlighted by the news that several household names who played in the 50s, 60s and 70s, have been diagnosed by this horrible disease.

It was first highlighted back in 2002 when West Bromwich and England centre forward Jeff Astle died, aged 59, from dementia brought on by repeatedly heading the ball.

Just recently, it was announced that Sir Bobby Charlton is living with the disease, and his Manchester United teammate and World Cup colleague Nobby Stiles MBE, who died aged 78, suffered severe dementia.

I recall my playing days and clearly remember how heavy those balls were, particularly on a wet day as the ball grew increasingly heavy as the leather soaked up large amounts of liquid. The effect of heading a ball back in those days was akin to those cartoons where someone is hit in the face and they stand rooted to the spot as their upper body shudders violently from the force of it.

I guess we knew no different in those days, but on reflection when you see how powerfully players like John Charles, Dixie Dean and Jack Charlton headed a ball, it is no wonder modern science is telling us it is dangerous.

Of course, improvements in the design of ball, and the restrictions on younger children heading the ball until they are older will help this in the future, but it is a sobering thought for all of us of a certain age.

Over the decades there have been many changes to the rules of the game as well as improvements in equipment. For instance, my first pair of boots were second hand leather ones that came up over the ankle with a patch on the side to protect a painful kick on the bone. The studs were attached to the soles using three small nails, which after a while came through the bottom and into the sole of your foot – very painful.

Whilst I guess I was grateful to my parents for buying them for me, I was jealous of my great pal Philip Evans who not only had a new pair as a present on his birthday in August, but were of the latest design with the cutaway under the ankle like a pair of slippers!

I won’t go any further in my thoughts with regards to “modern” changes in the game as I could fill a paper with my rantings, but I do wonder who thought up the latest rules regarding the VAR system which has gone way past what it was originally designed to do, and “cheating”.

Unfortunately, this is something that has appeared since the introduction of foreign players, where I understand it is the norm in their countries to gain an advantage if they can, regardless if it is legal. The sad thing is you hear British players and pundits agreeing that is acceptable.

I’m afraid that it is not the beautiful sport it was – it is now a business.

Woodmead Halls

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