Towards the end of last year, following months of campaigning in support of the Astles and other families who have seen loved ones disintegrate before their eyes from the cruel impact of dementia, an email dropped into my inbox. It was from someone who has been involved with the growing issue of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in sport, and had closely followed football’s response to the Jeff Astle inquest of 2002.
“You should be able to spot the pattern now,” said the message. “Problem brought to light in public/press. Governing body announce research on way. Public/press back off. And repeat. For the past 15 years or more, it is a strategy that has been highly effective.”
History makes it easy to understand such scepticism and is a warning too that, while the announcement of FA/PFA-funded research into football and dementia could be the most significant step forward since the Astle inquest, it is only the start of a new process.
The announcement was the easy bit. More important is that genuinely independent researchers are found. They must then start work as quickly as possible. The football community should stand aside and, beyond facilitating the study with any requested databases, contacts and information, the researchers must be allowed to work free from any FA/PFA direction.
Most important of all is that football then acts on the results of the research, whatever they may be. It was easy to predict the first reaction from Jeff’s daughter, Dawn, upon reading the FA statement on Thursday. “It’s taken long enough,” she said.
It most certainly has, not just in the context of a previous FA research study that started in 2001 and they eventually disowned in 2014, but even since the subsequent attempt to make up for past blunders.
Astle received an apology from then FA chairman Greg Dyke in 2014 and there was a promise to forward research questions to Fifa. That never happened and then, when the Telegraph launched its campaign in May last year, the first FA response was again to point at Fifa. Yet something genuinely did seem to change last summer.
The mantra of new chief executive Martin Glenn and chairman Greg Clarke is that they want to be judged on deeds rather than words and, with head of medicine Charlotte Cowie leading on this issue, some faith is being restored. The Astle family believe that she does genuinely understand where they are coming from.
It is more than can be said for their experience of PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor, who has been in post since 1981. Amazingly, they say he has never spoken to Laraine Astle – Jeff’s widow – and their disappointment in his input is deepened by the expectation that the PFA should be the most vocal campaigner of all over an issue of player health.
Taylor defended himself this week to The Telegraph – and outlined how the PFA had helped deliver research and supported players – but understanding their frustrations was not difficult. In one of only two meetings with Taylor, Dawn asked directly whether he felt that there was a problem with former players and dementia. His answer drifted into talking about Muhammad Ali and pleading medical ignorance.
The Astle Foundation has been approached by more than 300 families of former players with dementia – including seven this past week – but Taylor did not quantify numbers that had been in touch with the PFA.
“Very difficult to be precise,” he said. “I don’t know whether it would be over three figures. A substantial number.”
It is good and right that his organisation has now committed funding for this promised research but some perspective is needed.
The Astle Foundation had wanted to commission the study themselves several years ago but could not raise the £700,000 it was estimated to cost. The PFA turnover around £22 million a year – largely from broadcast revenue rather than member subscriptions - and Taylor’s salary has been famously compared to that of a modern Premier League player.
Taylor stressed earlier in the week that he has been long pushing for research and insisted his organisation had “done more than anyone” on the issue but, according to several sources, the FA have driven this latest development.
None of this, though, is really about apportioning credit or even blame. What matters is the memory of players like Jeff Astle, who died not knowing he scored the winning goal in the 1968 FA Cup final. What matters are people like the Chesterfield legend Ernie Moss, who no longer speaks, or Billy McNeill, who cannot recount becoming the first British player to lift the European Cup.
The research and campaign is about people like them, their truly remarkable families and hundreds of other footballers from every level of the game, whose stories are invariably harrowing.
It is also about this current generation and players more recently retired, like Chris Sutton and Alan Shearer, who have become curious about whether the modern game is safe.
If there is a problem with former players, football must mitigate risk, give its participants the chance to make informed choices and explore further research.
The families have waited patiently for too long but on Thursday the authorities delivered a rare moment of hope. With that must also come responsibility and the job now is to ensure that the very legitimate caution of campaigners – so bluntly outlined in the email at the top of this article – is not again deepened.
Nikki Trueman, Ernie Moss’s daughter:
The whole of the football community has been behind Dawn Astle and her campaign for justice. Thanks to The Telegraph for highlighting our plight. Let’s hope that all Dawn’s hard work and our speaking out about other affected players will get a proper investigation started. Dawn, Amanda Kopel and myself and many other will continue to fight for our loved ones.
Dawn Astle, Jeff's daughter
It has been about making informed choices. Without the research and us looking back to say, 'have we got a problem with our former players?', then we will never know.