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Football and Dementia

17th December 2020 By Rob Stewart
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Huddersfield Town legend Les Massie’s love for football never left him.

The blue and white Town scarf draped over Les’s coffin at Huddersfield Crematorium demonstrated the Scot’s devotion to his old club till the very end.

He scored for the first time in Town colours when Bill Shankly began his managerial career in November 1956 and never looked back.

And he went on to hit the back of the net a further 107 times in a 13-year stint securing his place in Terriers folklore.

He excelled alongside Manchester United great Denis Law who credits his fellow Aberdonian with helping him find his feet in Yorkshire.

Les’ contribution to football was immense but he was also one of the growing number of former footballers who have developed dementia.

As a former striker who was good in the air, it would seem that Les’s journey with dementia should be linked to the game he loved.

But, as is the case with football as a whole, nothing is ever straightforward.

Les’s son Neil won’t go as far as to say that football killed his dad but one thing he is certain of – that more research is needed to help prevent dementia and find a cure.

“Establishing irrefutable links between football and dementia is proving difficult but the sheer volume of numbers of people in the same boat as my dad strongly suggests there are links so you can’t discount it,” Neil told me.

“Seeing my father go through dementia showed what a cruel condition it is and for us as a family it reinforced the need for more research and also for greater awareness of dementia so things are better in the future.”

Hardly a day goes past without football and dementia making headlines together, especially in our national newspapers.

England’s World Cup-winning legends Martin Peter, Jack Charlton, Nobby Stiles and Les’s Town colleague Ray Wilson are among the high-profile stars hit hardest.

There used to be a terrible taboo around dementia – especially among sportsmen – but that stigma which held many back from going public has changed.

There are hundreds of ex-footballers who have been affected by the degenerative condition and thankfully more and more of them are coming forward.

That is in no small measure to the way the Jeff Astle’s family have inspired national newspapers to support their campaign for change and better support.

The Daily Mirror and Mail on Sunday, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail have all got stuck in.

Having worked in the Alzheimer’s Society media team for eight years, it’s great to see the British media fighting the corner of the football family because their support is vital.

Despite the billions being injected into research, because the brain is so complex, progress is painfully slow while the prevalence of dementia rises in tandem with our rapidly ageing population.

And while the numbers of ex-footballers developing dementia provides compelling evidence the sport does cause dementia, the scientists are still seeking definitive answers.

That said it makes sense that steps are taken to limit the amount of times that young men and young women head the ball while their brain are still developing.

There are still lots of unknowns but what is certain is that better care should be provided for former footballers who are living with Alzheimer’s and others diseases of the brain.

Football is awash with money and the footballing authorities and the PFA players’ union must do more to help them on a journey as the game can be a force for good, as shown by Les Massie.

“Football held dad together throughout his journey with dementia,” Neil said.

“I’d read Town books to him in his care home and the memories came flooding back which was great to see because dementia is very cruel.

“He had great stories to tell like when Bill Shankly dropped him in funny circumstances.

“Bill told him ‘you’re not looking well, son’ but dad said ‘what do you mean, I’m fine’ only to be put in his place: ‘Well I’m not picking you tomorrow because Denis is making his debut.’

“More recently, I’ll cherish the memory of watching Town at Bournemouth with dad a couple of seasons ago. He wanted to sit right at the back of the stand in the middle of the travelling fans who were singing and shouting and banging away. He loved every minute of it.”