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Laura Bradburn

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Age doesn’t come alone.  That’s what the well known adage is anyway.  We all know the kinds of things that await us if we are fortunate to make it into our 70s, 80s or even 90s.  The risk of being diagnosed with diseases like Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, cancer, heart disease and diabetes increases significantly with age.  And that list isn’t exhaustive.

Having read the latest piece in The Independent by chief sports writer Ian Herbert, I sit here at a loss.  Utterly heartbroken and undoubtedly angry.

Ian focuses on the story of the great Nobby Stiles, a member of the unforgettable Manchester United side of the 1960s and, of course, England’s World Cup winning side of 1966.  Nobby has unfortunately been ill for a number of years, battling Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.  Though the exact cause of the disease isn’t known, there is some suspicion that Nobby’s could be linked to the years he spent battering a heavy leather football with his head.

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Nobby Stiles has been battling Alzheimer’s for 15 years

Read through the story and you’ll find examples of injustice that will make you struggle not to scream with frustration.  Stiles’ family’s recounting of a story in which he asked his old club United for tickets to a Liverpool match to celebrate his daughter’s birthday, only to be told he should pay full price for the privilege.  The story that the FA, only a month ago, wrote to Kay, Nobby’s wife, intimating they would like to help Nobby and other members of the World Cup winning team with their health issues.  And the sickening realisation that, despite being contacted herself, Kay would have to complete a means tested process on Nobby’s behalf to ‘prove’ he qualified for help.

The instinctive, guttural reaction for most reading this will, I’m sure, be one of complete disgust.  Taking United and the FA alone for a second, they have earned over £500m in profit and over £300m turnover at various points in the last two years.  It’s therefore fair to say that, given the examples quoted, they could stretch to a few tickets for Nobby and his family, or award him some kind of financial pay out to help with his longer term care.

Of course, the issue is somewhat more complicated than that.  If the clubs and football associations of every country were to pay for the medical care of every ex-player, funds would soon run dry.  Nevertheless, there is a feeling, after reading Nobby’s story, that MORE could still be done.  Just because little is being done now and we can’t expect to help everyone doesn’t mean there isn’t a middle ground that can be reached somewhere.

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Nobby with his United teammates George Best and Bobby Charlton at the height of their careers

Poor treatment of ex-professionals isn’t isolated to Nobby.  Former England captain Bobby Moore was allegedly poorly treated by ex-club West Ham, if extracts from Harry Redknapp’s autobiography are to be believed.  What should be expected of these clubs and football associations is hard to define but when the way they treat ex-professionals just FEELS wrong, then it’s perhaps because it is.

Should ex-players be given free tickets to the matches involving their old clubs? Absolutely.  Should they be made to feel welcome at the institutions they served and whose history they helped create? Undoubtedly.  And should those self-same institutions help ex-players in situations where their current ailments could be related to their playing careers?  Injuries leading to longterm ill-effects that these players ultimately suffered for the betterment of those very institutions?  For me, the answer is still unequivocally YES.

The population of the UK is estimated to increase by 9.7 million in the next 25 years.  Furthermore, the number of people aged over 60 is expected to increase by 6% to just over 29% by 2039.  So the problem of looking after the elderly isn’t unique to football.  It’s something we’ll all have to get better at in society at large.  Are we any better at it than the major footballing institutions in the country?  No, probably not.  But here, then, is where those very clubs and boards could lead the way – developing pioneering schemes to look after the people no longer able to look after themselves.  You never know, they might get it right and, in doing so, act as an inspiration for the nation as a whole going forward.  Wishful thinking I know… but impossible?  I don’t think so.

You can read more about some of the charity work being done by AGE UK here.

You can read more about the work being done by the Alzheimer’s Society here

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