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As his body lay in a chapel of rest 20 years ago, Jeff Astle’s daughter Dawn made him a promise.
Astle had enjoyed a stellar footballing career with Notts County and West Brom, scoring the winning goal for the Baggies in the 1968 FA Cup final, and represented England at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.
However, in his mid-50s, he was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, and he died at the age of 59 on January 19, 2002, choking to death at a party to celebrate Dawn’s 34th birthday.
In life his rapid deterioration – described as being like “a juggernaut out of control” by his widow Laraine – was attributed to Alzheimer’s Disease.
During his illness, his family had their suspicions that his career in football had contributed to his death.
“We always thought, we always suspected, but we didn’t know,” Dawn told the PA news agency in an interview to mark 20 years since Astle’s death.
“One of the most horrendous things I did was to go to see him in the chapel of rest,” she recalls.
“I walked in and I’ve never walked so slowly in my life, because you can see the coffin in the room. My mum and I were howling, it was horrific. I remember I took his hand and said: ‘Dad, I promise you, if football has done this, I’ll make sure the whole world knows.”
Laraine recalls first noticing something was not right when Astle was aged 54. He had become a welcome and regular fixture singing songs on the ‘Fantasy Football League’ programme presented by comedian Frank Skinner – an Albion fan – and David Baddiel.
But in filming the final series of the show, Laraine noticed Jeff finding it a particular struggle to learn the words of the songs, and where he needed to come in.
She also noticed a restlessness in him on a holiday in Ibiza, and pleaded with him to go to a GP. He reluctantly agreed, and underwent a series of tests.
At the end of the consultation, Laraine made an excuse to go back in and see the GP alone.
“The GP said: ‘I’m going to send him for a scan, I think he’s got early-onset dementia’” Laraine recalls.
“I walked out of there completely and utterly stunned. In the blink of an eye, in the seconds it took to tell me I knew my life had changed forever.”
Astle developed an eating disorder, and in his last months could not even remember the names of his children or grandchildren.
“When (grandchildren) Taylor and Matthew came to see him his face lit up. I could see him struggling to remember their names,” Laraine said.
“He just said: ‘It’s my beautiful girl and my bestest boy’.”
In November 2002, just under 10 months after his death, coroner Andrew Haigh said Astle’s brain resembled that of a boxer. He recorded a verdict of death by industrial disease, owing to Astle’s repeated heading of a ball.
“We thought that result would be a defining moment, and sport would react with vigour to protect future generations and help those past heroes who would die, with their families on their knees. We assumed incorrectly,” Dawn said.
A study looking at the link between exposure to head trauma and ‘boxer’s brain’ was initiated in 2001 by the Professional Footballers’ Association and the Football Association, but the family were devastated to learn in 2014 via a Mail On Sunday reporter that there were no plans to publish it.
Dawn describes that period between her dad’s death and receiving that news as “12 wasted years”.
Consultant neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart re-examined Astle’s brain in May 2014, and diagnosed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
The family launched the ‘Justice for Jeff’ campaign which in April 2015 became the Jeff Astle Foundation. The Foundation works to support other families of former footballers living with dementia.
“People talk about the 1966 team, and rightly so because they were so iconic. But I can assure you those five (who developed dementia) in the team isn’t unique, it really isn’t,” she said.
The Foundation has also led the calls for further, meaningful research into the risks from concussive and sub-concussive injuries to footballers’ long-term brain health.
In 2019, Dr Stewart’s FIELD Study – commissioned two years earlier by the PFA and the FA – concluded footballers were four and a half times more likely to die from neurodegenerative disease than age-matched members of the general population.
Further studies are looking at the cause of that increased risk, but Dawn said: “It isn’t because of the grass, or the oranges at half-time, is it?”
Football has taken more proactive steps to improve safety since that study was published, with heading guidelines in training introduced for under-18s in 2020 and for the professional and adult game last year.
A statement from the family of Jeff Astle and everyone at The Jeff Astle Foundation. pic.twitter.com/weIoWc6zVt
— JeffAstleFdn (@JeffAstleFdn) July 28, 2021
Laraine recalls “tears streaming down her face” in sheer relief when former Football Association chairman Greg Clarke told the family about its plans to make children’s football safer.
Battles still lie ahead – Dawn has described football’s concussion protocols as “farcical” and continues to campaign for football-related dementia to be classified as an industrial disease.
Astle is still remembered with huge affection at West Brom, and the family will attend this Saturday’s match against Peterborough. His nine-year-old grandson Joseph, a massive Albion fan, will be one of the mascots.
Before that, the family faces a difficult day on Wednesday, two decades on from Astle’s death.
“It’s a weird day. January 19th is the day my dad died, not the day I was born. He wouldn’t want that, but I can’t help it,” Dawn said.
“My dad died because of football, and football did nothing. I still think now they wouldn’t have done anything if we hadn’t done what we’ve done.
“And players would have continued to die, and children playing on a Saturday or a Sunday would still be at risk.”
The heading guidance introduced and studies instigated over the last two and a half years have undoubtedly been spurred on by the family’s relentless campaigning.
The family can therefore draw comfort on Wednesday from a promise kept.