Joe Kinnear's family reveal his 'heartbreaking' dementia diagnosis and call for football to provide more support

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Joe Kinnear coaching Wimbledon - Joe Kinnear’s family accuse football of ‘heart-breaking’ lack of support as they reveal his dementia diagnosis - ACTION IMAGES
Joe Kinnear coaching Wimbledon - Joe Kinnear’s family accuse football of ‘heart-breaking’ lack of support as they reveal his dementia diagnosis - ACTION IMAGES

The family of Joe Kinnear have announced that the former Tottenham Hotspur defender and Wimbledon manager is living with dementia, and called for urgent action to tackle the national game’s care crisis.

Kinnear was diagnosed with an aggressive form of early onset vascular dementia in 2015, the year after leaving Newcastle United, and his condition is being made public on Wednesday with the blessing of his wife Bonnie and daughter Russelle.

They want football to mitigate the risk facing current and future generations and establish a fund for the many former players who are tragically incapacitated by neurodegenerative disease. Kinnear, who is now 74, was diagnosed in his late sixties but has deteriorated to a “late stage” of his illness and the family are currently preparing to admit him into full-time care. Having also personally seen many of her husband’s team-mates and football friends suffer at a similarly young age, Bonnie suspects that Kinnear’s dementia was caused by repetitive heading.

“I’ve been greatly saddened to see so many former players battling dementia,” she said. “It’s just awful. They insure footballers against breakages, so why not against dementia? There must be enough money in football to help those who need it. And they must take further steps to make the game safer for those playing now and in the future. More has to be done in both areas. This is not about us - it’s about the whole of football.”

During Tottenham’s glory years of the 1960s and 1970s, Kinnear was a team-mate of Jimmy Greaves, whose death was announced on Sunday following the stroke he suffered in 2015. Kinnear’s mentor was Dave Mackay, who died in 2015 after living with dementia in later life. The Kinnears were also close friends with Martin Peters and his wife, Kathy. Peters, a 1966 World Cup winner, died in 2019 aged 76 after also living with dementia since his late sixties.

Tottenham Hotspur v Norwich City...Tottenham Hotspur celebrate with the 1973 League Cup after their 1-0 win: (back row, l-r) John Pratt, Cyril Knowles, Pat Jennings, Martin Peters, Mike England, Steve Perryman, manager Bill Nicholson, ?, Martin Chivers, Alan Gilzean; (front row, l-r) Ralph Coates, Joe Kinnear, Terry Naylor, Phil Bea - PRESS ASSOCIATION
Tottenham Hotspur v Norwich City...Tottenham Hotspur celebrate with the 1973 League Cup after their 1-0 win: (back row, l-r) John Pratt, Cyril Knowles, Pat Jennings, Martin Peters, Mike England, Steve Perryman, manager Bill Nicholson, ?, Martin Chivers, Alan Gilzean; (front row, l-r) Ralph Coates, Joe Kinnear, Terry Naylor, Phil Bea - PRESS ASSOCIATION

Former outfield players are four times more likely to suffer neurodegenerative disease than the general population and researchers are finding no decline in that alarming ratio since football moved into the Premier League era. “Common sense tells you that the damage starts as soon as you start heading a ball,” said Kinnear’s daughter Russelle. “This is about educating schools, academies, parents and coaches. It has been totally heartbreaking. I feel like my parents have been robbed of so many good years together.”

A dementia diagnosis has been revealed in a series of high-profile former players over recent months, including Denis Law, Terry McDermott and Gordon McQueen.

Bonnie Kinnear: 'We need to get him into full-time care. We are not at a happy state'

For Bonnie Kinnear, it was the drastic shift in her husband Joe’s once happy-go-lucky personality that told her something was seriously wrong. “He started to get moody - a bit depressed,” she says, casting her mind back to the end of 2014. “I thought, ‘this isn’t right’. Then he got aggressive in certain situations. It just wasn’t Joe. It was a problem trying to get him to see somebody but we eventually got him to a doctor and he was diagnosed in 2015. They classed it as early onset vascular dementia and, since then, he has just deteriorated. He’s in the late stage. It is heartbreaking to see how someone can change. He was larger than life. He loved people. He’d walk in a pub, buy everyone a drink, tell funny stories and be the life and soul of the party.”

Tottenham Hotspur Fc Players Wives Pictured Outside White Hart Lane Prior To Leaving For Wembley For The League Cup Final V Norwich. L-r: Back Row: Gwen England (mrs Mike England) Carol Chivers (mrs Martin Chivers) Sandra Evans (mrs Ray Evans) The Club Doctor's Wife Marilyn Morgan (mrs Roger Morgan) Deborah Burke (mike Dillon's Girlfriend) Linda Naylor (mrs Terry Naylor) & Sheila Neighbour (mrs Jimmy Neighbour). Front Row: Marie Pratt (mrs John Pratt) Bonnie Arnold (joe Kinnear's Girlfriend) Valerie Beal (mrs Phil Beal) Kathleen Peters (mrs Martin Peters) Eleanor Jennings (mrs Pat Jennings) And Sandra Coates (mrs Ralph Coates) - SHUTTERSTOCK
Tottenham Hotspur Fc Players Wives Pictured Outside White Hart Lane Prior To Leaving For Wembley For The League Cup Final V Norwich. L-r: Back Row: Gwen England (mrs Mike England) Carol Chivers (mrs Martin Chivers) Sandra Evans (mrs Ray Evans) The Club Doctor's Wife Marilyn Morgan (mrs Roger Morgan) Deborah Burke (mike Dillon's Girlfriend) Linda Naylor (mrs Terry Naylor) & Sheila Neighbour (mrs Jimmy Neighbour). Front Row: Marie Pratt (mrs John Pratt) Bonnie Arnold (joe Kinnear's Girlfriend) Valerie Beal (mrs Phil Beal) Kathleen Peters (mrs Martin Peters) Eleanor Jennings (mrs Pat Jennings) And Sandra Coates (mrs Ralph Coates) - SHUTTERSTOCK

Bonnie and Joe had first met in 1969 through a mutual friend after she had also joined his Tottenham Hotspur team-mates Jimmy Greaves and Dave Mackay for a pub lunch at the Old Hall Tavern in Chingford. That Bonnie would not be overly impressed by the company of some of the most celebrated footballers in the country was evident when she greeted Greaves with the opening line, “So what do you do?” She now laughs: “That was my knowledge of football but Jimmy didn’t mind - a lovely, lovely guy. There was such camaraderie. It was an honour to put the shirt on - finances didn’t come into it.”

The fact that Kinnear had delivered a man-of-the-match performance as the youngest player in the 1967 FA Cup final win against Chelsea was naturally also lost on Bonnie. But she was attracted by his effervescent personality and they have been together ever since. “Exciting and worrying - but I wouldn’t change it for the world,” says Bonnie, when asked to describe the rollercoaster experience of being married to a leading player and manager. Alongside the likes of Greaves, Mackay, Terry Venables and Pat Jennings, Kinnear also won two League Cups and a Uefa Cup as part of Bill Nicholson’s legendary Spurs side. His weekly wage would eventually rise from £20 to £60 but a knee injury cut short his playing career at 30.

 20th May 1967: Joe Kinnear and Jimmy Greaves of Tottenham Hotspur football club celebrate after beating Chelsea in the FA Cup Final. - GETTY IMAGES
20th May 1967: Joe Kinnear and Jimmy Greaves of Tottenham Hotspur football club celebrate after beating Chelsea in the FA Cup Final. - GETTY IMAGES

Kinnear initially owned a pub called The Stag but also took his coaching badges and the lure of management proved impossible to resist. He worked in Nepal - “one of the most exciting things ever,” says Bonnie - and then Dubai and Doncaster with his mentor, Mackay, before the chance to succeed Bobby Gould at Wimbledon.

What followed over the next seven seasons was among the best managerial achievements in the Premier League era, peaking with Wimbledon to finish a club-record sixth in 1994 and Kinnear named manager of the year. These were also classic ‘Crazy Gang’ years off the pitch - the players and staff would all eat after training at a transport café run by a man known as ‘Fag Ash’ Fred - and Kinnear was among the best-known and longest-serving Premier League managers.

The answer-phone message on the family home somehow summed him up. ‘I can’t answer you at the moment but, if it’s the chairman of Juventus, Barcelona or Real Madrid, don’t worry, I’ll ring you right back,’ it said.

“We would go on holiday to Spain and the taxi-drivers would sing ‘Wimbledon, Wimbledon’ at him - Joe would be recognised wherever we went in the world,” says Bonnie.

Wimbledon were again in the top six and had reached three domestic Cup semi-finals in two years by the night of March 3 1999, when Kinnear collapsed following a heart attack before the Premier League match against Sheffield Wednesday.

Bonnie says that he would have died if it had happened on the team bus, but that his life was saved by the instant medical attention he received that night at Hillsborough. “He was very lucky because all the medics were in place and they got him to the hospital within 15 minutes.” A heart by-pass operation meant leaving his job, but he would always take huge pride in how many of his former Wimbledon players went on to further success both inside and outside of football. He was also back in the dugout himself for Luton Town two years later and then briefly Nottingham Forest before his surprise appointment at Newcastle United in September 2008. Kinnear’s tenure memorably began with an explosive, expletive-laden press conference. Bonnie laughs at the suggestion that his judgment might already have been impacted. “Oh my God! But that was Joe,” she says. “To me that was mild compared to what he could have done. He is naughty, we know that, but he has a loveable nature. He’s generous. Friendly. People were drawn to him whenever he walked into a room.” Russelle also laughs. “No excusing that one,” she says. “When the newspapers came out, and he’d had a rant, we just hid.”

The intensity and pressure of management, says Bonnie, was huge. “When they lost, the kids, and even the dog, would run when they heard the key in the door. We left him alone but it just consumes you as a manager. The managers get a lot of help now, quite rightly, to help them cope with stress or depression. That wasn’t there in Joe’s era - it is a big difference.”

Newcastle were outside of the relegation zone in 15th when Kinnear felt unwell at the team hotel in February 2009 before the match against West Bromwich Albion. He would subsequently have a triple heart bypass operation and never managed again. The Kinnears then had to deal with the tragic loss of their son Elliot from cancer. Russelle says that Kinnear has been a wonderful grandfather to her children, Nick and Dan, who are now 23 and 19. “He loved watching them play football and cricket and encouraged them hugely - they live for football and we need to be educating the next generation so they don’t do these heading drills,” she says.

2 Feb 2002: Luton manager Joe Kinnear celebrates his teams win during the Nationwide League Division Three match between Luton Town and Plymouth Argyle at Kenilworth Road, Luton - GETTY IMAGES
2 Feb 2002: Luton manager Joe Kinnear celebrates his teams win during the Nationwide League Division Three match between Luton Town and Plymouth Argyle at Kenilworth Road, Luton - GETTY IMAGES

Kinnear did return to Newcastle as director of football in 2013 before leaving the following year prior to his dementia diagnosis. The ensuing years have, to put it bluntly, been a living nightmare and, as Kinnear’s dementia has taken hold, Bonnie’s mind has been cast back to all those hours he would spend heading a football. And then seeing so many other players suffer in the same way. “They would get called back in the afternoon and he would head a ball that was hanging from the ceiling for 40 minutes,” she says. “It’s tragic. Kathy and Martin [Peters] were close friends. I speak to Kathy all the time. Dave [Mackay] was such a vibrant man. And then suddenly you have it coming into your life.”

Bonnie stresses that she received valuable advice and emotional support from both the Jeff Astle Foundation and the League Managers’ Association (LMA). Medication has helped and, while he has lost interest in football and has no apparent memory of his career, she says that there are still occasional moments of light and a twinkle again in his eye. “Dawn [Astle] and the LMA have been a great help but it has reached the stage where we just need now to get him into full-time care. We are not at a happy state at the moment.”

Russelle points out that Kinnear, like hundreds of others, was from a generation when wages were nothing like the players of today. “They don’t have the help - and they didn’t have the money back then either,” she says, before emphasising the enormity of the impact on the families of former players. “Mum does not leave his side - she does everything for him,” she says. “They are so dedicated to each other but it is beyond exhausting. And it is devastating. You are watching someone you love disappear.”

The Football Association introduced new guidance this summer which suggested that professionals should limit their weekly practice to 10 ‘higher force’ headers but it is not mandatory and experts remain concerned that the bigger problem could be the accumulation of lower force headers. The FA have also recommended a 10 header weekly guidance in grass-roots training but it is also not mandatory.

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