During 15 long years waiting for answers, the resolve, passion and determination of Jeff Astle’s family has never once faltered but their patience has now snapped. They have lost faith in Gordon Taylor to represent players on what they believe is the biggest issue facing football - the ‘silent scandal’ of degenerative brain disease – and are today calling on the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association to stand aside.
“They have failed; swept it under a carpet,” says Laraine Astle, the widow of Jeff. “It is 15 years since Jeff died and we feel nothing has been done. Gordon Taylor has waffled his way through. They should make way for a younger man who has got more fight, who will go in with all guns blazing and be seen to do it. It would hearten those families who are in a very dark place. We have tried to work with them. We have been very patient, very polite, but they have let us down. They have let Jeff down and they have let football down.”
Jeff and Laraine’s daughter, Dawn, added: “You need someone who is going to fight for the players. He takes the industry line and he should take the union line.”
Jeff Astle would have been 75 this year but he died in 2002 at the age of 59 after his brain had been ravaged by the impact of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a disease that is caused by blows to the head, and which produces symptoms consistent with dementia.
Astle choked to death, not remembering that he had even been a footballer, let alone the scorer of the winning goal in the 1968 FA Cup final and a hero among West Bromwich Albion fans, where he is still known simply as The King. His inquest recorded a verdict of death by industrial disease and there was a promise by the PFA and the Football Association of a joint 10-year research project into how heading a ball impacts on the brain.
The FA eventually disowned what became a more limited research – something the Astle family only discovered via a journalist in 2014 – and ongoing plans for a new, more definitive study, have so far not been followed by any firm announcement. The Astles were also furious following a meeting involving the FA and PFA in December 2014 to learn in 2016 that an FA promise to forward a series of research questions to Fifa was not acted upon.
At the same time, the Astle Foundation had been contacted by more than 300 families of former players with dementia. Some, they say, are “household names” whose families wish to keep the condition private. The Astles expected Jeff’s inquest to be a watershed moment for football.
Instead, Laraine’s one direct communication with the PFA was when Brendon Batson represented the organisation at the inquest.
Laraine says she has never had a phone call from Taylor. “I have never spoken to the man,” she says. “Not once. I have phoned the PFA and always got through to a woman who said they would get back in touch and never did. Jeff’s central membrane had split in half. He was a footballer. He wasn’t a boxer. It beggars belief and I’m sure my Jeff wasn’t the first. I am also sure he won’t be the last.”
Dawn has met Taylor twice. The first occasion was in a meeting that was attended by Gary Neville after she was brought to tears by listening to Taylor on TalkSport radio. In the interview, she heard Taylor say, “I don’t want to be rude to a family that has just lost a father but Jeff Astle made his name in football” and also point out that his mother, who had vascular dementia, did not play football.
Dawn felt it was disrespectful and says she would rather have a father who was there to see his grandchildren than be a famous player. She also felt that Taylor “neglected” his position in not appearing to know that her father had died of CTE rather than dementia.
On that first visit to the PFA, Dawn says that she heard Taylor tell a colleague that they had been “inundated” since the inquest. Yesterday, Taylor confirmed to The Daily Telegraph that a “substantial” number of families had come forward but said he was unsure whether it was more than 100. He also stressed that he was always well aware of Astle’s CTE diagnosis and all the research that has been undertaken in the area, notably the PFA-assisted project that began in 2001 and was ultimately published in the Brain Injury Journal last year.
Taylor’s second meeting with Dawn was as part of a BBC documentary that was screened earlier this month. On this occasion, Dawn walked out in fury at what she regarded as non-answers. “My last question was , ‘Do you think you’ve got a problem with former players?’ He went on and on. I said, ‘I can’t do this’. I just went outside for a bit. Normally I get upset when I talk about Dad. I don’t think there was one tear. I was so angry. I am just sick and tired of what seem to be empty promises and empty gestures.”
Taylor was adamant yesterday that his organisation had been absolute in their support of the Astles and said he was “very much offended” by any suggestion of a cover-up. “As an organisation we have done more than anyone,” he said. “We know that frustration because of the lobbying we have done. We are trying to recruit everyone in football to buy into this. We haven’t swept it under the carpet. I have never not been prepared to speak with them or see them.”
Taylor confirmed that the PFA was now working with various partners, including the FA, on new research. “It is an area where we are prepared to commit funding but I cannot do funding on our own,” he said. “We are the PFA for England and Wales; we are not Fifa. It’s not neglected and something we would love to get an answer to. This is high on our agenda.”
Taylor said that families in need were never ignored and always helped. He was also adamant that every call to the PFA was properly logged as well as answered and said that they had assisted with setting up the Astle Foundation.
During four hours at the Derbyshire family home on Monday, the Astles very precisely outlined their three aims. To raise awareness of potential CTE. To campaign for research that is genuinely independent and which answers the relatively simple question of whether former footballers are suffering disproportionately. Finally, they want support for those many families who are now facing the threat of losing their homes.
It is not, they stress, about anything resembling the $1 billion compensation pay-out in the American National Football League following confirmation of CTE among former players. “We can sit with our hands on hearts and say not one family have talked about compensation,” says Laraine.
Dawn previously worked in the police and, while her commitment to the Astle Foundation is now all-consuming, the personal toll of their campaign has been colossal. “Someone said don’t let it take over your life, but it’s a bit late now,” she says. “I thought the fact he was killed by his job and no one seemed to care – in terms of the football authorities – was going to drive me mad. It’s what I think about as soon as I wake up.”
Dawn stopped seeing a therapist only last year, who had helped both with the trauma of her father’s death and also the frustrations of dealing with football’s governing bodies. Yet there is laughter as well as tears when they recount their journey.
“You have to find that release,” says Laraine. “We have grandchildren who have never known anything but our fight.”
As a player, Astle was a renowned header of the ball but would say that it could feel like bag of cement. Laraine can also recall numerous clashes of heads, as well him being knocked unconscious and never remembering what had happened during a European match in Bruges. They first feared that something was wrong in the summer of 1998 when Jeff was doing one of his cult turns on the Fantasy Football programme.
“We would be told what he was singing and he would learn it,” says Laraine, who would then stand by the studio camera and recite the lyrics. “Within a short space of time he could go from singing perfectly in the dressing-room to forgetting. He couldn’t grasp it.”
Out of the blue, Jeff then asked if his late mother was alive. Holidays had invariably been spent sunning themselves in a deckchair – Jeff loved newspapers and Laraine would devour Agatha Christie novels – but he became restless that summer and constantly wanted to walk up and down the promenade amid searing Ibiza heat.
“He could not relax – it was horrendous,” says Laraine. Jeff reluctantly agreed to see a doctor and, after being unable to recall a name and address that he had just been told, Laraine was quietly informed that early onset dementia was suspected.
“I said, ‘What can you do?’ The doctor said, ‘Nothing. It will get worse and worse’. Nothing was the same again. I walked in with the outside world coloured. I walked out with it grey.”
Jeff’s disease was aggressive. He soon stopped working as an industrial cleaner. After attempting to jump out of a moving car, travel became a major challenge. He developed a disorder that might lead him to attempt to eat frozen meat or even washing tablets.
Knives had to be hidden as he had no concept of danger. “You lose a bit of them every day,” says Laraine. The family do at this point stress that they were grateful to the PFA for funding the installation of a shower in their home. Jeff died on Dawn’s birthday, the day after the funeral of Laraine’s mum. The stress of both events triggered Laraine’s ongoing rheumatoid arthritis.
“You cope because you have no choice,” she says. “You couldn’t believe anything could be so cruel.” Dawn says that “a part of us died” and she still gets haunting flashbacks from the experience of trying to resuscitate him in front of the whole family as he choked on his food.
“He was coughing and his body was wanting to be sick but he kept swallowing,” says Laraine. “The brain couldn’t send the right signal. To have all that and then have to fight people who, to be honest, come across as indifferent has added insult to the heartache we feel.”
Astle’s brain was re-examined posthumously in 2014 and Dr Willie Stewart said that it was the worst case of CTE he had seen. “We knew he’d have it; his brain resembled a boxer or someone in their 90s,” says Laraine. “Football has been proved to be a killer. It gave him all these medals but took everything away. We have been inundated from other families. I think there will be thousands.
“Neurosurgeons and pathologists are backing up everything we are doing. But what have we got from the football authorities? Paper shuffling. Broken promises. They ignore it and waffle on, thinking, ‘They’ll get fed up, they’ll go away’. They’ve not got a cat in bloody hell’s chance.”
Dawn nods slowly. “Not a hope in hell,” she says.
- The Jeff Astle Foundation is hosting its first annual Gala Dinner on May 13 at the Hotel Football in Manchester to mark what would have been Jeff’s 75th birthday. Guests including 1966 World Cup heroes Sir Geoff Hurst and Gordon Banks. For more information: www.thejeffastlefoundation.co. uk/