The anger came from the daughter of former footballer Jeff Astle. Claire was met with some resistance to her words. Why was she choosing this stunt to get angry at, why not referees, goal line technology or players wages?
The response solidified Claire’s point that the column inches devoted to disgruntled fans of one club had far outweighed the publicity her family had received in the same week with an issue that could affect the health of all footballers.
The Football Association was forced to apologise last week to the family of Jeff Astle, who died in 2002, for not conducting a promised investigation into the dangers of heading a football.
Twelve years ago a coroner ruled that Astle had died from early onset dementia which had been brought on by repeatedly heading a football. The coroner ruled the ex-England international’s death as an ‘industrial disease’ meaning that football had contributed to his ill health.
Jeff Astle was a football icon, especially at West Bromwich Albion. Baggies fans called him ‘The King’ and worshipped him for his 174 goals, his fearless playing style and his ability in the air. In 1968 West Brom won the FA Cup with a single Jeff Astle goal. His extra time goal meant that not only had he won the cup but he had scored in every round of the tournament that season.
Jeff was noted for his heading prowess. He practised with a medicine ball to hone his skills and played with heavy leather balls in the sixties and seventies. On wet winter match days when the ball absorbed the moisture the ball became more like a lead weight.
It is reported by the pathologist who conducted the footballer’s post-mortem, that ‘every slice of Astle’s brain had trauma in it’ and that it ‘resembled that of a boxer’. His dedication to becoming a skilled player had left his brain damaged beyond repair.
In 2012, an American soccer player called Patrick Grange died from a disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a disease that is caused by repetitive blows to the head. The Chicago Fire player was 29-years-old and proud of his ability to head and control a ball. His parents recall him practising to head a ball into a net even at the age of three.
During his short career in the MLS he sustained a few notable concussions but he continued to practise daily, tossing the ball into the air and heading it into an empty net. Practice makes perfect.
Boston University discovered after his death that Patrick had CTE, which is more common in American footballers and boxers. On a four level scale of severity Grange’s brain showed a level two severity.
Some American soccer organisations are advising young players and their family to avoid practising heading until they are a certain agebecause research suggests the brain is not fully developed and children could be more susceptible to brain damage.
Despite the warnings, there isn’t enough data in football to fully assess how many players could be suffering from ‘Punch Drunk Syndrome’ and what effect this could have on them in later life.
Concerns have been raised already this season about players like Tottenham Hotspur’s Hugo Lloris, who was allowed to continue playing after he lost consciousness in a game against Everton. The move was branded ‘irresponsible’ by leading head injury and brain damage charities.
The FA and the Professional Footballers Association’s lack of investigation raises questions about whether it was a conscious decision because it could lead to compensation claims from former players and their families.
It has also been suggested by the FA that some research was conducted on new apprentices but because the majority of them didn’t go on to play at a higher level the investigation petered out.
As Astle and Grange’s cases prove it is entirely possible that prolific heading of a football can lead to brain damage, dementia and even death. The question has to be asked as to why the governing bodies aren’t investing time into research and preventative methods.
Jeff Astle’s family have started a campaign to raise awareness of the issue and to try and force the hand of the governing bodies to properly investigate the issue. The Justice for Jeff campaign started at West Brom’s game against Hull City, where fans held banner and conducted a minute’s applause on the ninth minute to commemorate their ‘King’.
With the help of the Mail on Sunday, Astle’s family are hoping to extend the campaign to a parliamentary enquiry on concussion in sport. There had previously been calls for this to happen from rugby associations: their players have a higher risk of concussions.
Jeff’s family are urging fans to contact their local MP in support of an enquiry which will look at the impact of head injuries in all sports.
There are many reasons to get angry about football but a protest banner from a club’s fans who expect to win the league pales in comparison to this apology from the FA.
Read more from Laura Jones here.