My enduring love of sport comes from Mum. In fact, as I’ve spent the majority of my working life as a sports journalist, I suppose you could say that I owe her my career too.
Like me, Mum was an enthusiastic spectator but a strictly limited player. Dad was less sporting, either as spectator or player, though he was international class at the little-heralded pastime of Pro-Celebrity Sporting Snoozing. Put a sporting “celebrity” on television and Dad was asleep in seconds.
Mum was a one-time season ticket holder at West Bromwich Albion – my lifelong addiction to all things Throstle comes from her side of the family. In later years, she was strictly an armchair fan but she’d talk fondly of some of the best players she’d watched – Ronnie Allen, Ray Barlow, George “Ada” Lee and, later on, Jeff Astle.
Jeff, of course, died tragically young of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease similar to dementia. Since his death, his family have struggled to obtain answers to questions about the links between football and CTE. Was his repeated heading of the ball, a “skill” for which he was celebrated, a significant factor in his early death?
There’s growing evidence of links between sport, and football in particular, and dementia. And there’s a growing feeling that these sports should be doing more to look after former players who have given so much pleasure. Players like Ernie Moss.
Ernie played most of his professional football away from the brightest spotlight but he was a master goalscorer and it was players like Ernie, just as much as Jeff Astle, who made me fall in love with football. Having watched him play for Chesterfield in the 1970s, I could hardly believe it when I saw him turn out for Kettering Town at Maidstone United in the late 80s. Ernie now lives with Pick’s Disease, a rarer form of dementia.
Given the eye-watering amounts of money in some areas of football today, the sport surely has a duty to do as much as it can and more for former players like Ernie. And, I’d venture, it has a duty to the families of players no longer with us, like Jeff.
But sport has another role to play. Like music, our relationship with teams and players is predominantly an emotional response. (As West Brom were relegated at the end of the season in which I went to my first game, and have gone down at least six times since, I don’t think there’s much rational about my support.) As Tony Jameson-Allen and his award-winning Sporting Memories Network charity has proved, sport can reach the parts of a life affected by dementia that simple conversation no longer can.
A few years ago, I watched a game in the company of a man living with advancing dementia. At lunch before the game, he was silent, disengaged. Once we took our seats pitch-side, his eyes brightened, his attention sharpened. Years before, he’d been a turnstile operator at the ground. Even now, I’m not sure he knew his own name, but he knew exactly where he was.
In the early days after Mum’s diagnosis, we watched England’s test series with the West Indies together on television. As her Alzheimer’s tightened its grip, she still liked to talk about cricket, even if it seemed as if, for her, Ian Bell of her beloved Warwickshire opened both the batting and the bowling for England. No matter, sport gave us some common ground.
Sport can’t provide a cure for dementia but it can bring comfort and warmth.
We owe sport a lot but sport owes those closest to Jeff Astle, Ernie Moss and many, many others a great deal too.