The link between football and dementia is growing but there is a charity – backed by the Huddersfield Town Foundation – which can help make a difference.
In recent weeks former Huddersfield Town and Manchester United legend Denis Law has announced he has dementia and he was quickly followed by Terry McDermott, the former Liverpool star who was assistant manager at Town when Lee Clark was boss.
Town have also lost two of their all-time greats to the disease – World Cup-winning right-back Ray Wilson and England striker Frank Worthington.
The charity Sporting Memories, however, is helping making a difference. The charity has online and community-based clubs that bring older people together. Fans, former players and family members with a love of sport come together to chat and remember, while tackling dementia, depression and loneliness.
Helen Johnston, communications manager at Sporting Memories, said: “Each time we learn of former professional footballers now living with dementia, many thousands of fans recall memories of those players’ club careers, significant matches and goals.
“Fond memories of sport – from childhood or as a fan – are ideal for sparking conversations. At Sporting Memories we use the power of talking about and remembering sport to tackle dementia, depression and loneliness.
“We do this at Sporting Memories clubs in England, Wales and Scotland as well as through our partnership with the PFA where we provide practical support for former professional footballers.
“There are several Sporting Memories clubs in Yorkshire, for older fans of all sports, including at the Huddersfield Town Foundation.”
Frank Worthington died in March at the age of 72. Though his condition was only publicly confirmed after his death it was widely known the condition had him in its grip.
The man who still attended Town games in the directors’ box was a pale shadow of the flamboyant character of his pomp. Only the trademark fedora gave him away.
Former teammate Geoff Hutt, who played alongside Worthington in the 1970s, recalled: “Frank was an unbelievable player, he could do anything with the ball. He was a great talent and a lovely man.
“When I came down to the John Smith’s Stadium and I saw him he would always give me a big hug. But sometimes when we’d hug he’d ask who I was.
“That was awful to experience and really sad to see him struggling. Everyone in our team had huge respect for Frank. We had such a good team spirit, we’d do everything together so it hurt to see a good friend finding things hard.”
According to research on dementia by the University of Glasgow, ex-footballers are 3.5 times more likely to die from the illness than the general population.
Geoff, 71, is in good health but says his wife keeps a close eye on him all the same.
“It is a terrible illness and I feel sorry for anyone suffering with it,” he said. “It’s difficult for those people who have it but also their friends and family too.
READ MORE: Frank Worthington – a tribute to a legend
“In my day when I played, the balls did get really heavy with the mud and rain. We didn’t play with light balls back then and we didn’t play on what are effectively now bowling green pitches. There is a lot more science now in the sport too.
“It’s a real shame these lads I knew and played against are suffering with this illness. However, I will say that I don’t see how you can stop heading the ball, it’s part of the sport.”
A former player from a later generation, Steve Nicholson, started out at the Leeds United Academy in the 1990s.
Now assistant manager at Emley AFC, former full-back Nicholson gave his thoughts on how dementia in football needs to be taken seriously.
“Obviously I played in a time when football had started to move on slightly from using those heavy balls,” he said. “The pitches started to get better but it was nowhere near like it is today.
“If you got hit by a ball on a cold wet training day boy did you feel it. The balls were a lot heavier than what they are today.
“The topic of dementia does need to be monitored because it is a terrible illness. It has caused a lot of distress to former players.
“It is with the scientists now and hopefully the more data collected the better understanding we have of how it affects people with heading a ball.”
If you or a family member is suffering with dementia then please contact your local NHS service.