In the ninth minute of Saturday’s game between Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion at Anfield, applause rang out all over the stadium. It wasn’t anything to do with what was happening on the pitch, but because a banner which simply said ‘Justice for Jeff’.
The Jeff in question is Jeff Astle, who was one of the best strikers in the English leagues in the 60’s and 70’s. He represented England at the 1970 World Cup, and is regarded as one of the greatest West Brom players of all time. To those too young to have seen him play, he was best known for singing at the end of every episode of Fantasy Football League, a football comedy show which ran in the mid 90’s.
Jeff Astle died in 2002 at the age of 59. At the time, it was thought that he had died of Alzheimer’s disease, as his mental acuity had been failing for a number of years. The coroner had said he was convinced that the trauma Astle’s brain had suffered was the result of repeatedly heading footballs over his career.
Earlier this year, Dr Willie Stewart, one of the UK’S leading Neuropathologists, carried out a new examination of Astle’s brain and determined that he had actually died of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a disease associated with repetitive brain trauma.
‘When I spoke to Dr Stewart he confirmed that Jeff had CTE,’ said Astle’s widow Laraine
‘I asked him several things about Jeff’s brain and it was deeply upsetting to understand how badly damaged it was. Dr Stewart said to me that, had he not known Jeff was only 59 when he died, he would have thought his brain was that of someone at least 89 years old. I think that says it all"
Astle played in a time where they used to use balls that, while they were about the same weight as balls used today, had the major drawback of taking on water when it rained, a frequent occurrence in England, so become extremely heavy during games, and therefore more painful and potentially damaging with regards to heading the ball.
Many people are concerned that Astle isn’t an isolated case; a lot of players from the early to mid-20th Century have ended up suffering from Alzheimer’s or other dementia-related diseases. Star players like Danny Blanchflower, Nat Lofthouse, Stan Cullis and Sir Alf Ramsay have all died from the disease, and other notable players like Dave Mackay and Jimmy Hill suffer from Alzheimer’s at present.
Following the death of Astle and the coroners assertion that heading footballs was the contributing factor to his death, the FA and the PFA (the players union) visited the Astle family and promised to conduct a joint 10-year study into the effects heading a football has on the brain.
It seems as though the FA went as far as identifying some young apprentice players as test subjects, but when those players then failed to make the grade as professionals, the FA just gave up and did nothing else. At least they’ve provided no evidence to the contrary. As Dawn Astle, the daughter of Jeff put it “It's a good job the people looking at cancer and Alzheimer's don't just give up like that”
Earlier this year, the Astle family claimed that in over 12 years, rather than the regular contact they were promised, they had received a grand total of two letters from the FA. The first one was a letter from the FA’s legal team advising the Astle’s against taking legal action over Astle’s head injuries. The second was a letter offering the Astle family tickets for an upcoming England friendly, but it was made clear that the FA were only prepared to offer two tickets.
The PFA didn’t even do that much. In fact, the Astle family said earlier this year that they haven’t heard from the PFA since that 10-year study that never happened was announced.
A few months ago, FA Chairman Greg Dyke visited the Astle family to apologise for the FA’s lack of contact and promised to look into reviving the aborted study with the PFA. Dawn Astle said:
“I told him that we felt 12 years ago, when Dad's brain was examined, there was enough evidence for the FA to be considering 'have we got a problem here with our former players?'
"I said 'you didn't do anything, so me and my sister did.'"
What I really don’t get is why the PFA haven’t pursued this more strongly. The whole purpose of the PFA is look after the welfare of players, so it seems astonishing that with all of the anecdotal evidence that repeatedly heading the ball could lead to some serious health problems later in life, they haven’t done everything they can to try and establish whether or not there is any empirical evidence to back that up.
According to an article on their website, it seems as though in 2003 the PFA got as far as trying to get chronic neurological diseases in footballers officially recognised as an industrial illness, but couldn’t work out how to provide the empirical evidence needed. They then seemingly gave up until a few weeks ago, when the FA announced they were reviving their study.
There has been some research done before into a link between heading the ball and neurological disease. Research done in Italy using the medical records of ex-players suggested that the risk of developing a neurological disease was significantly higher amongst ex-players.
Last year, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University conducted a study where they gave 37 amateur players a DTI (a type of MRI), which detects abnormality in the structure of the brain. The players also underwent memory and neurological function tests and filled in a questionnaire asking about how often they headed a ball. The study suggests that in the players who headed the ball more, their memory was more impaired and seemed to link repeatedly heading a ball with traumatic brain injury.
Lead researcher Dr Michael Lipton said: "Our study provides compelling preliminary evidence that brain changes resembling mild traumatic brain injury are associated with frequently heading a soccer ball over many years."
The small sample size of that study mean that the conclusions that can be drawn are limited; and it should be noted that the DTI scans were only done once, so there is definitely room for a study on a much larger group of players, who get scanned repeatedly so we can see the effect heading the ball repeatedly has over time. Hopefully, the FA/PFA funded study will fill that void in current research.
It should be emphasised that rather than the rock-hard balls of the past, modern balls are made from a synthetic material, coated in polyurethane, with a latex bladder, so are much lighter and are waterproof, so they don’t get heavier in the rain. So, it seems as though the risks of developing a serious head injury like Jeff Astle did are much lower today.
But, the truth is that nobody knows what effect, or even if there is an effect, heading the ball repeatedly over time has on the brain. Until we do, nobody who plays football can make an informed decision over whether or not to head the ball.
Jeff Astle has gates named him outside the Hawthorns, West Brom’s stadium. He is still a much-loved player from the club’s past. But, perhaps his biggest legacy may be that his untimely death may prove the catalyst to investigate the long-term ramifications of heading footballs so that new guidelines can be put in place, which may help safeguard the health of future players.