It cannot be an easy thought but, as Chris Sutton candidly outlines his dad’s harrowing battle with dementia and the family’s certainty that it was caused by football, the conversation inevitably drifts on to whether players of the Premier League era could become affected.
Leading neuropathologists believe that the added velocity of new lighter balls might make them just as damaging while Alan Shearer, the other half of the legendary ‘SAS’ Blackburn Rovers partnership, is undergoing a series of medical tests this year as part of a BBC documentary into an issue that the Telegraph began campaigning on last May.
A former England striker and Premier League winner, Sutton retired from football exactly a decade ago on medical advice after experiencing blurred vision in his right eye. He does not sit fretting about himself now but has become outraged by the “national disgrace” of numerous former players – including his dad – suffering from degenerative brain disease and the football authorities “sweeping the issue under the carpet”.
Sutton is conscious that it might not be solely an issue for past players and believes the current and next generation are also being let down. “Until we get to the bottom of it, who knows what might happen in the future,” he says. “We talk about the PFA letting down our heroes of the past but it’s the players of the present and the future as well. I wasn’t exactly a tricky winger. Some of the heavy balls that had picked up dew would still give you a headache for the rest of the game after heading them. You have to live your life and try to deal with things as they come along. I’m not worried about myself. That probably doesn’t sound right but the shocking fact is these ex-players. They are the evidence we can all see.”
Sutton says that there are several Scottish clubs from the 1950s and 1960s where half the team were affected and regards the Jeff Astle inquest – and subsequent CTE diagnosis – as definitive proof. “Why do people not recognise what the coroner’s verdict is? We do with everything else. It’s decidedly odd.”
Sutton’s dad, Mike, is sadly one of an alarming number of former professional footballers who has been suffering at an unusually young age. Like three of the eight surviving members of the 1966 World Cup-winning squad, Mike first developed symptoms of dementia when he was still in his sixties. The national average for men between the ages of 65 and 69 is one in 75 and yet, 15 years on from an inquest that found Astle had died due to brain damage from playing football, the authorities have failed to produce the promised comprehensive research.
Campaigners are not asking for anything scientifically complicated; they simply want the Football Association and Professional Footballers’ Association to collaborate with independent researchers so that the incidence rate of former players can be compared to statistics for the wider population.
Sutton describes the inertia as “shameful” and, like many other relatives of former players, is especially disappointed that the players’ union has not been more proactive. “The PFA have fudged and waffled,” he says. “I think that is the saddest thing. What was it ultimately founded on? A duty of care to footballers past and present. There are a lot of families out there being left to rot and strain and stress.”
Sutton says that he first became aware of the potential link between football and dementia when he heard about the plight of Duncan Forbes, the former Norwich City player. His own dad also played for Norwich during the 1960s and, at the age now of 72, has been suffering from dementia for the past six years.
“I see my dad a lot and he has got progressively worse,” says Sutton. “He’s in a position now where my mum looks after him. They live in Glasgow in a small flat. It is 24-hour care. My dad can’t sleep unless my mum is next to him. It’s really hard for her. It’s not like she can get a good night’s sleep. He has this insecurity and is totally reliant on her. He can’t clean his teeth properly. He can’t find his way to the bathroom from the bedroom. He barely speaks.
“He was a strong man. Things like reading and watching television are just impossible for him because he can’t remember what’s happened two minutes ago. He colours now. There’s nothing wrong with colouring but he was never into art.”
Mike Sutton was a midfielder and, after a playing career that spanned 22 years and also took in spells at Chester, Carlisle United and Great Yarmouth, was a high quality club cricketer with Drayton. He taught biology and PE when he stopped playing professionally and his younger son, John, still plays in Scotland for St Mirren. “My dad was always driving me on when I was a young person – he was a huge inspiration,” says Chris. “I know he was very proud of me, but he can’t really remember anything about my career now. He has to be locked in for his own safety. He will get worse. My mum worries he will end up choking to death. It’s pretty horrific really and desperately sad.”
The PFA and FA announced after the landmark Astle inquest in 2002 that they had started a 10-year research project but it emerged only in 2014 that the FA had disowned the study. It did eventually lead to an article last year in the Brain Injury journal but the findings were not definitive. Both the PFA and FA now say they are committed to new research but nothing concrete has been announced. The families feel like they are no further forward than when the coroner delivered the Astle verdict. “Fifteen years, in my view, is a bloody long time to get something wrong,” says Sutton. “Gordon Taylor was in charge of the PFA back then. He is still in charge. Is it not damning?”
Taylor has repeatedly defended his input, pointing out that some research was published last year and that he is now willing to commit PFA funds to a new study. He also says that the PFA has helped numerous families with advice, support and financial help. “We haven’t swept it under the carpet,” Taylor told the Telegraph. “It’s just not true. We are doing our level best on this issue. This is high on our agenda. As an organisation we have done more than anyone. We are trying to recruit everyone in football to buy into this.”
Taylor also denies that money is an obstacle but, certainly in respect of the wider football authorities, many families suspect that the lack of progress is linked to the fear of compensation claims or concern they will become liable for care costs. Sutton is adamant that a sensible solution could be reached.
“I think financially they would be worried about claims but surely there could be some middle ground,” he says. “You just want to see a bit of effort, compassion and care. You can’t change the past. You can’t change the footballs. That’s gone. Nobody is asking for heading to be banned. We are saying, ‘Can you please recognise this? You said you were going to do testing 15 years ago’. The fact the testing failed set everything back and it could be another generation of footballers affected.
“From my family’s point of view, we just want a bit of justice in terms of what is right for these people who are suffering. We just want someone to say, ‘We’ve got it wrong, we are going to do the testing and, from here on in, we are going to support the families’. I don’t think that is totally unreasonable.”
The Telegraph calls on the football authorities to deliver promised independent research that addresses the question, ‘Does playing football increase your risk of degenerative brain disease?’ and to study a large sample of former professionals and compare findings to the wider public. This will raise awareness, bring closure to affected families, improve safety and allow current and future generations to make informed choices.