Football in the dock amid confusion over FA's promise of a 10-year study on link between football and dementia

The Football Association are facing mounting anger over the failure to publish potentially lifesaving research promised by them in the wake of former West Bromwich Albion and England centre-forward Jeff Astle's death at the age of 59 from early onset dementia.

Astle died in 2002 and coroner Andrew Haigh ruled that extensive damage to his brain was the direct result of heading footballs over the course of his 15-year professional career. The FA promised Astle's family a 10-year study, supported by the Professional Footballers' Association, into the link between heading a football and dementia. But last night the two bodies appeared confused over progress on the project.

An FA source said the study had not been completed because the players involved had not gone on to play professionally. But Gordon Taylor, the PFA chief executive, said: 'There were some difficulties in keeping track of the individuals. But it was completed although it hasn't been published.'

Legend: West Bromwich Albion legend Jeff Astle in his playing prime

Legend: West Bromwich Albion legend Jeff Astle in his playing prime

Taylor added: 'This is still very much on the agenda and something we really want to continue. We have had approaches from two hospitals with a view to continuing the studies.'

Last week's interview in The Mail on Sunday with Astle's widow, Laraine, told the harrowing story of her husband's final years and drew an extraordinary response from the relatives of other former professional footballers who died after suffering early onset dementia. Many of the callers expressed their belief that the deaths were a direct result of brain damage sustained by heading the ball.

Minute's applause launches Justice for Jeff campaign

The family of West Bromwich Albion legend Jeff Astle launched a campaign calling for 'Justice for Jeff', which saw travelling fans at the team's Premier League match at Hull applaud for a full minute in his honour on Saturday.

Astle scored 174 goals in an illustrious career before dying aged 59 with early onset dementia his family are convinced was the result of heading footballs during his 15- year professional career.

'The pathologist who examined my Jeff's brain found that every slice had trauma in it and that it resembled that of a boxer's,' said Astle's wife, Laraine, 67, after Saturday's match. 'All I want from the FA is an acknowledgment that his death could have been caused by football and an apology for what's happened.'

Yesterday an estimated 3,000 travelling supporters broke into a sustained minute's applause in the ninth minute of the game - Astle wore the No 9 shirt - and his family unfurled a banner in the away end which read 'Justice for Jeff'.

'It was amazing that every one of the fans applauded in Jeff's honour,' said an emotional Mrs Astle. 'We're going to keep doing this until we get the acknowledgement Jeff deserves. We're not going away.'

Last week the FA issued an apology to the Astle family via the media, although they have still not made any direct contact. 'We've heard nothing whatsoever from the FA,' said Mrs Astle.

In other developments last week:

  • Labour MP and Shadow Cabinet Minister Chris Bryant claimed sport's authorities are in danger of being judged 'criminally negligent' in their attitude to head injuries.
  • Astle's family launched a 'Justice for Jeff' campaign calling on the FA to apologise directly to them and to acknowledge that his death was caused by heading footballs.
  • David Davies, FA chief executive at the time of Astle's death, admitted: 'I wish I'd done more to help the Astle family.'
  • Leading neuropathologist Professor Willie Stewart agreed to re-examine Astle's brain to establish whether he suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the brain damage syndrome found in boxers and American Footballers and suspected to be a growing problem in rugby.
  • One of the world's leading neurologists blamed sport's 'secretive culture' for a 'shocking' failure to investigate links between dementia and head trauma.
  • The chairman of a former player's association said: 'We've known about this problem for years but the governing bodies ignore our letters.'

When Laraine Astle spoke to The Mail on Sunday last week she said that an FA representative had 'promised help' following an emotional visit to her home in Netherseal, Derbyshire, shortly after her husband's death. Today we can reveal that the FA representative was David Davies, the former BBC reporter who held executives positions at the FA from 1994 until he left the organisation seven years ago.

Davies told the Mail on Sunday: 'I was always worried about this [the link between heading footballs and dementia]. I wish more could have been done. But it is entirely true that there was a view from some people that heading a ball, including those heavy footballs of days gone by, was part and parcel of the game.'

Last week the FA attempted to apologise to the Astle family for 'not staying in contact' in the years since Jeff Astle's death. But the way they went about saying sorry - by sending out a Press release rather than by apologising directly to the family - has angered his wife and children.

The FA's statement included the offer of complimentary tickets to England matches for family members, but Astle's daughter, Dawn, said: 'They think all he's worth is a couple of tickets to an England match. We've heard nothing from the FA, nothing. We want a Parliamentary inquiry and an acknowledgement that Dad died because of his job.'

Backing: West Brom fans show their support for the Astle family

Backing: West Brom fans show their support for the Astle family

While the FA insist there is no credible evidence linking football-related head injuries with early onset dementia, those working with retired players such as Richard Wickson, the chairman of Reading Football Club's former players' association, are convinced there is a problem.

'Clearly it's very difficult to say Alzheimer's or any brain disorder is directly attributable to football,' he said. 'But we do seem to have within football associations like ours a large percentage of former players suffering from these disorders. The players we're seeing with it seem to have been playing in the Fifties and Sixties. We know about the prevalence of heavy footballs in those days. But we've also got players in their fifties showing signs of poor memory and so forth.

'We've written to almost every professional body in football and we've heard nothing back. We've had no response from anybody.

'It's my view that the Football Association, the Football League and the Premier League have swept the issue under the carpet.'

Nearly 50 former players have now been identified by The Mail on Sunday as having been diagnosed with dementia in the past two decades. Last week the Labour MP Chris Bryant demanded a Parliamentary Inquiry into the issue of concussion in sport.

Popular: Astle with Frank Skinner and David Baddiel on Fantasy Football League TV show

Popular: Astle with Frank Skinner and David Baddiel on Fantasy Football League TV show

Bryant, a minister in Gordon Brown's Government and now Shadow Minister for Welfare Reform, said: 'I spoke with a leading neuropathologist who works with the New York Jets this week and she's amazed that Britain seems to be 15 years behind America on this. The danger now is that people will end up having to sue and they will end up having massive pay-outs which could cripple some sports.

'My fear is that some of the sports are just putting their head in the sand and there is a point when that just becomes criminal negligence. It's no good one sport sorting it out, we need to get all sports on board to change the whole culture.

'One person has said to me "It's all right because the ball is much lighter these days". But the truth is they don't know what headers do to people.'

The issue of head injuries in sport has drawn global attention following research on former American Footballers at Boston University and last year's $765million pay-out to former American footballers suffering early on-set dementia by the National Football League.

Other research projects -  on 7,000 professional footballers completed eight years ago at Turin University and another at New York's Albert Einstein University looking at the effects of heading footballs last year - appear to show a direct link between repeated concussions, or sub-concussive blows, and early on-set dementia.

Confusion: PFA chief Gordon Taylor says report has been compiled but not published

Confusion: PFA chief Gordon Taylor says report has been compiled but not published

But concussion expert Professor David Dodick, of the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, says more needs to be done to explore possible links between head injuries and contact sports in Britain.

He said: 'When you consider that the Turin research was published eight years ago, it is shocking more hasn't been done to investigate this. Were it not related to professional sports, this would have been explored in depth by now but it's not surprising given the level of secrecy which surrounds and shrouds professional sports.'

American neuropathologist Harrison Martland first reported 'dementia pugilistica' or 'punch-drunk syndrome' in boxers in 1928. But the  discovery of the same pathologies - now called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy - in the brains of retired American Footballers has seen attention switch to other contact sports, including football.

Professor Willie Stewart, associate professor of neuropathology at Glasgow Southern General Hospital and a concussion adviser to the International Rugby Board, has previously identified CTE in a former rugby player's brain. He has contacted the Astle family and will re-examine tissue samples held at Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham in an attempt to identify the same pathologies.

Concern: Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was allowed to carry on playing against Everton this season, despite suffering a head injury

Concern: Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was allowed to carry on playing against Everton this season, despite suffering a head injury

'For decades people assumed boxing was uniquely brutal but it should come as no surprise that any sport in which participants are routinely exposed to head trauma could lead to an increased likelihood of dementia,' said Professor Stewart,

On March 4, sport's governing bodies, including the Rugby Football Union, the Football Association and the British Boxing Board of Control, attended a Parliamentary hearing to discuss sport's approach to concussion. At the meeting, the FA's head of medicine Ian Beasley said: 'We'll have some protocols by Thursday (March 6).'

Those protocols have yet to be announced despite examples this season of Premier League players -  including Hugo Lloris, Andros Townsend, Robert Huth and Romelu Lukaku - being allowed to play on despite signs that they may have  suffered concussion.

Sport's governing bodies routinely cite the Zurich Consensus on Concussion in Sport, drawn up by medics employed by the same organisations, for their guidelines on head injuries but it is increasingly clear that the information provided is outdated.

Football's authorities, along with other sports governing bodies, insist they have not seen higher incidences of dementia among retired athletes. But many fear that is because not enough effort has been made to look.

Did football kill our loved ones, too?

Following The Mail on Sunday's emotional interview last week with Jeff Astle's widow, Laraine, we received an astonishing number of telephone calls from the families of other professional footballers who died from dementia.

Former Norwich City captain Duncan Forbes

Case No 1

Former Norwich City captain Duncan Forbes (right), who was known for his tough tackling, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's seven years ago at the age of 65.

His wife, Janette, was forced last year to put him into residential care because she was no longer able to look after him at home. She now believes that heading the ball during his 23-year playing career as a central defender contributed to his dementia.

Mrs Forbes told The Mail on Sunday: 'I do not think heading footballs helped. He used to head medicine balls in training because if you could head one of those, you could head a football further - that is like being punched.

'Duncan had been playing since he was a kid and I don't think he played with the really heavy leather balls with laces, but they were heavier than the ones they play with today.

'The authorities would never admit it because it would open the floodgates, but I think there are a lot of ex-professional players with Alzheimer's.'

Case No 2

Ron Cockerill, nicknamed the Cannonball, played professional football for 13 years, with three at Huddersfield and 10 with Grimsby between 1958-1968. He died in 2010, aged 75, after a six-year battle with vascular dementia.

His widow, Thelma, said: 'He taught HGV drivers after he retired from the game and it wasn't until he was in his sixties that he began to show symptoms of memory loss.

'When he was 65, he had a small heart attack, and it was after that the doctor suggested he had a brain scan. Ron was knocked unconscious a couple of times in his career but all they did was keep him in hospital overnight. I don't believe they would have scanned his brain.

'When his brain was finally scanned they said there was damage there. 'Although he would not have swapped his life for anything, we are both sure it was the trauma to his head that caused him to go down with dementia.'

Former Celtic striker Billy McPhail

Case No 3

In 1998 Celtic striker Billy McPhail (right) failed in a legal bid to prove he suffered early on-set dementia from heading heavy leather footballs in the 1950s. McPhail had developed a neurodegenerative disease which he blamed on heading the ball. He compared the force to being repeatedly punched by a middleweight boxer.

He had attempted to prove his condition stemmed from his work so he would qualify for £70-a-week industrial injuries disability payment. However, the case was thrown out by an industrial tribunal in Glasgow and the former player died aged 75 in 2003 following many years battling the illness.

His widow, Ophelia, told The Mail on Sunday: 'We had the scans and we discovered that the left-hand side of his brain was definitely damaged. 'I started to think "What caused this?" and decided maybe it was the football. 'Somebody should be responsible for an accident that happens at work, and I think football has always turned its back on these players.'

Case No 4

Graham Rathbone was 55 when a brain scan confirmed his family's worst fears - the former Newport and Grimsby centre half was suffering from dementia.

But it was only when his wife, June, told doctors how he had earned his living that the connection between his illness and heading a football was made.

Mrs Rathbone said: 'The doctor asked me what he did for a living and as soon as I said: "Well, he used to be a professional footballer", it was like a light bulb came on.

'The doctor said: "I see this a lot with boxers and footballers, especially those who headed the ball a lot".' Rathbone died, aged 69, in January 2012.

Case No 5

John Mulholland who played Case Study 4 for Grimsby and Scunthorpe United in the 1950s, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's three years ago, although his wife, Jean, said: 'He had been suffering with memory loss and other symptoms for years before he was diagnosed.

'He went into a home three years ago because I had a stroke and could no longer look after him. We did think about what could have caused John's condition because in those days the ball was ridiculously heavy. He would often come home with headaches and blamed it on heading the heavy ball.'

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