The family of Jeff Astle have secured a vital breakthrough in their fight for an investigation into the possible link between heading a football and degenerative brain diseases, with the Football Association finally seeking applications for independent research.
Dawn Astle, the former West Bromwich Albion player’s daughter, said she was “delighted” that the governing body was inviting research bids, 15 years after an inquest established that the striker had died aged 59 from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) linked to repeatedly heading heavy leather footballs.
“It’s been a long time coming and it is tinged with relief as well,” Ms Astle told The Independent. “I’m sure there will be lots of interest from scientists and academic establishments and I hope they select the right one.”
At least four members of the 1966 World Cup winning team – including Nobby Stiles, whose plight has been featured extensively by the Independent – have also been afflicted by brain disease.
The FA is expected to commit at least a six-figure sum to the research which could take at least three years to complete and quite possibly more.
The governing body the said question the governing body wants a team a team of independent researchers to answer was: 'Is the incidence of degenerative neurocognitive disease more common in ex-professional footballers than in the normal population?'
But the research team may also need to compare footballers afflicted by dementia with a control group of players who do not have such problems.
The Alzheimer's Society - which wants research before making any claim of a link between the disease and heading a football – is among those who say that unaffected players must form part of a study. Ultimately, the best way of establishing beyond any doubt that heading a ball damages the brain is by persuading players to commit to examination of their brains after death – though that process could take many years.
The FA’s head of medicine, Dr Charlotte Cowie, indicated that patience was needed as preparations for research got under way. “This process will not be rapid as diligence is essential so that all those involved in football, past and present, can be confident in the final results," she said.
Though the FA and Professional Footballers’ Association issued a joint statement inviting research bids, the players’ union has made it clear that the FA and Dr Cowie have taken the lead.
Dr Dowie said: “Dementia is a debilitating disease, which places extraordinary emotional and physical burdens on both sufferers and those close to them.
"Player welfare is paramount and it is increasingly important that the football authorities investigate further whether there are any potential risks associated with heading the ball, as this is a unique feature of our game. The project will be jointly-funded by The FA and the PFA as a collaborative approach will add credibility and resource to the project.
"We have been working with other partners inside and outside football for many months in order to ensure that any research is objective, robust and thorough. The parameters of the research having now been agreed, we are in a position to appoint an independent research group to drive the study forward.
This process will not be rapid as diligence is essential so that all those involved in football, past and present, can be confident in the final results."