“Footballers are paying with their lives but nothing is being done” – Dawn Astle continues her football dementia fight and hopes change isn’t far away

“It is unacceptable that nothing has been done, actually it is outrageous. I thought it was outrageous 18 years ago.”

We’ve heard in recent days about how vital sport is to our mental and physical well being.

The campaigns led by The Telegraph and sporting personalities show just how important sport, and in particular football is to the make up of society and communities.

But no one has ever thought of football as a killer. Doing something you love for a living shouldn’t lead to an early death.

However in 2002 for West Bromwich Albion legend Jeff Astle it did, and 18 years on his daughter Dawn is still fighting for justice.

Astle, affectionately known by Baggies fans as The King, suffered with dementia and his death was caused by repeatedly heading footballs throughout his career.

It took 12 years for Dawn and her family to get an acknowledgement from the footballing authorities that dementia was a problem for footballers.

I spoke to Dawn recently to mark the year anniversary of the Field Report, which confirmed professional footballers are three times as likely to suffer from dementia than non footballers.

The report was startling, and the anniversary has ironically been followed by the death of Nobby Stiles, who suffered with dementia, and the diagnosis of Sir Bobby Charlton.

Dawn is waiting for a response from FA Chairman Greg Clarke about what has been done in the last 12 months to tackle ‘footballs killer’.

Guidance was issued on heading for primary school children but nothing has been done to tackle the issue in the professional game.

Dawn, who still runs the Jeff Astle Foundation, thinks it is outrageous.

“It is unacceptable that nothing has been done, actually it is outrageous,” said explained.

“I thought it was outrageous 18 years ago when nothing was done.

“They wanted evidence, they have the evidence of industrial disease now and they can’t sit on the fence anymore.

“Do they want more evidence? If so, we’re just going round and round in circles.”

An inquest held in North Wales recently ruled that former Welsh international Alan Jarvis also died of dementia caused by heading footballs.

This information has been added to the foundation’s case, and Jarvis is one of 28 other ex professionals who have died so far this year.

Despite the apparent lack of progress from the authorities, the Astle’s and another family are pushing for change down another route.

And if a ruling is made in their favour, it would hit authorities in the pocket and they would be forced to act.

“What we think will be a game changer is our application to the industrial injuries panel, to have dementia in football officially classified as an industrial disease.

“That is a massive, massive game changer.

“How do you possible justify exposing children and teens to an industrial disease?

“If we do succeed it would provide an official acknowledgement to the evidence we have, and an employer would have a duty to employees to safeguard them from risks in the job.

“Failure to do that would leave them open to compensation claims.

“Football is loved by everyone, my family included, but for professionals it is still their job and they are owed the same protection as anyone else in any other job.”

Astle was one of Albion’s greatest ever players

Dawn thinks the financial risk that may come with not protecting players from these types of diseases may force the hand of the governing bodies.

“Football is a business and their first language is money.

“They may be getting worried if a law suit lands on the mat, and it may kick people into action.

“This isn’t a knock, or arthritis in later life, it is catastrophic and there is no cure.

“It results in death and these players are dying because they are footballers.”

Some quarters early on in the Astle’s campaign thought they wanted to rid heading, which is a major part of the game, from football.

But that couldn’t be further than the truth. It is about mitigating risk rather than banning.

“I don’t think my dad would have wanted that, it is part and parcel of the game.

“What we want are tighter concussion guidelines and proper testing.

“And when it comes to heading we want to put small things in place to mitigate against this massive risk, a 350 per cent increase.

“It may mean no heading on Tuesdays and Thursdays, or three hours maximum on other days, I don’t know.

“I remember talking to an old pro who played in the 90s and he said it wasn’t about the games, it was the training.

“The different heading they were doing for hours and hours on end was having a devastating impact on the brain.”

The figures from the Field study are stark.

Footballers are three and a half times more likely to get dementia.

Five times more likely to get Alzheimer’s.

Four times more likely to get motor neurone disease.

And twice as likely to get Parkinson’s.

And Dawn doesn’t want the governing bodies to be using Covid-19 as an excuse for unnecessary delay.

“It shouldn’t delay things, they’ve all got zoom and if I can use it I am sure they can.

“They are putting so much time and energy into things like VAR, which is killing the game.

“But not enough time is being spent tackling something that is killing footballers.”

Dawn Astle has never stopped fighting for justice for her father

Dawn and her small team at the foundation are continuing to make sure her father’s legacy is not forgotten.

They support other families in need, financially and practically, and give them someone to talk to.

Her will to fight is still as hard as it was in the months after her father’s passing in 2002, and she still remains willing to take on the powers of the game.

“I’m not one to be frightened by positions of authority and money, they don’t frighten me.

“We are doing all of this for the right reasons.”

Dawn touches on the stripped back reality of dealing with a family member who suffers with dementia.

Jeff was most know for his goal that won Albion in the 1968 FA Cup at Wembley against Everton.

A picture of the goal is pride of place in the Astle household, and Dawn recalls how when the disease took old the memory left her father.

The emotional memory itself should be enough for the governing bodies to take action.

“We had a huge photo of the 68 cup final on the wall and Mum used to show Dad football photos to try and ignite a little bit of the brain.

“To start with he knew it was him, he knew who he played for and he knew he played at Wembley.

“But at the end, Mum would say ‘do you know who that is Jeff,’ and he would say no.

“She would say ‘it’s you,’ and he would reply ‘is it?’

“And she would say ‘yes, you scored in the FA Cup Final,’ and Dad would do ‘did I?’

“It is still horrible, he was surrounded by trophies and England caps and he remembered nothing, he didn’t even remember he was a footballer.”

When Dawn and the Astle family’s campaign first took hold, it was covered by the local press and radio.

But after 27,000 leaflets at a West Brom vs Stoke game were held up in the ninth minute in The King’s memory, the story went viral.

The national press picked it up, momentum gathered and ultimately led to the Field report being published after Astle’s brain was analysed.

The Justice for Jeff campaign was keeping his legacy and that of others alive.

The FA took notice and Dawn insists the Astle family will forever be indebted to West Bromwich Albion fans for their assistance.

“Football fans never, ever forget their old heroes whatever club they play for.

“The footballing family is an amazingly powerful movement, fans are stubborn and dogged and they know right from wrong, and are not afraid of power.

“The campaign showed the power of a very ordinary family and what they can do against the odds and against the likes of the FA and PFA.

“Our family could give thanks to West Brom fans every day for the rest of our lives and it wouldn’t be enough.”

Jeff Astle Day in 2015

The Astle family and those in the foundation are waiting now to see what response they get from the FA and the industrial injuries panel.

For someone who is admittedly more often than not a glass half empty kind of person, Dawn is optimistic.

And as long as she is alive, she will keep fighting.

“I’ll keep going as long as their is breath in me and the authorities know that.

“I am a glass half empty person but I am quietly optimistic about this.

“The grounds are that it has to be twice as likely and we know dementia is three and a half so that is covered.

“It is a big call but they have to follow the signs.

“We know now football can be a killer. Our family has always known, it is on the bottom of Dad’s death certificate.

“So we have our fingers crossed.”

Dawn and her family are inspiring others, helping others and supporting those families who are dealing with the consequences of this slow killer.

Her father may have passed away at the age of 59, after scoring over 130 goals in the blue and white stripes.

But he still lives on.

“We all know the benefits of sports, but brain damage must never be seen as an acceptable consequence.

“By dying, my Dad’s brain now speaks for the living.”

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