Football’s dementia crisis: Chris Nicholl dies on same weekend as Stan Bowles

Chris Nicholl in Southampton kit

Chris Nicholl, the former Aston Villa, Southampton and Northern Ireland defender, has died on the same weekend as Stan Bowles also passed away, after living with dementia since his 60s.

Nicholl, who was 77, revealed in 2017 that he had been suffering serious memory loss over the previous “four or five years” when he appeared in the documentary ‘Dementia, Football and Me’ with Alan Shearer, who he had given his league debut as a manager at Southampton.

“I am brain-damaged from heading footballs,” Nicholl said. “My memory is in trouble - everyone forgets regular things - where your keys are. But when you forget where you live, that’s different.”

The Telegraph launched its ‘Tackle Football’s Dementia Crisis’ campaign in 2016 for answers over the prevalence of brain disease in football and a major study was commissioned the following year by the Football Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association.

The landmark research, which was overseen by Dr Willie Stewart at the University of Glasgow, found that former professional footballers were five times more likely to die of Alzheimer’s Disease than the wider population.

It also revealed that former professionals who played in positions that most frequently headed the ball, like Nicholl at centre-back, were most likely to suffer neurodegenerative disease in later life.

Although heading guidelines have since been introduced for professional clubs in training, an application in 2021 to make dementia in football officially recognised as an industrial disease has still not received a decision from the Industrial Illness Advisory Council.

Former players and their families have also received only severely limited financial help from the football industry.

Nicholl, who started his playing career at Burnley before spells at Halifax and Luton Town, scored in the 1977 League Cup final for Villa and won 51 caps for Northern Ireland, peaking with his five appearances at the 1982 World Cup finals.

He also played for arguably Southampton’s finest team in the early 1980s before succeeding Lawrie McMenemy as manager and then bringing through a crop of young talent that, as well as Shearer, included Matthew Le Tissier and Rodney and Danny Wallace.

Nichol’s daughter, Cathy, announced his passing on behalf of the family. “It is with a heavy heart that we write this,” she said. “Chris Nicholl (our dad) sadly passed away peacefully on Saturday evening in hospital. He fought a very long battle with CTE, caused by his dedication to football. Words can’t describe how much we’ll miss him.”

CTE is the acronym for the disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a type of dementia caused by repeated head impacts that has been found in increasing numbers of former players, including England heroes Jeff Astle and Nobby Stiles.

Shearer was among those who paid tribute. “RIP Chris Nicholl. You believed in me and gave me my chance. Thank you,” said the Premier League’s record goalscorer.

An Aston Villa club statement described Nicholl as a “gritty, uncompromising centre-back” who was “powerful in the air”.

Bowles, who died on Saturday at the age of 75, was diagnosed with dementia in 2013, when he was just 64.