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‘You are watching someone you love disappear’ – When will football protect all those suffering from dementia

Joe Kinnear in his pomp as Wimbledon manager
Joe Kinnear, who has died at the age of 77, spent the last decade suffering from dementia - Tony O'Brien/Action Images

“I feel like my parents have been robbed of so many good years together… you are watching someone you love disappear.”

Those were the words of Joe Kinnear’s daughter Russelle almost three years ago when, with her mother Bonnie, they chose to reveal via The Telegraph that the former Wimbledon manager and Tottenham Hotspur great was about to enter full-time care after being diagnosed with dementia.

Kinnear was 77 when he died on Sunday afternoon, surrounded by his beloved family. Yet he was only 67 – less than a year into what proved to be his football retirement – when he began showing symptoms of the disease.

It has become a story so tragically familiar among former players and managers that, beyond the many memories that Kinnear provided and the sadness at his passing, it is hard to not also feel anger.

Anger at a game that still cannot come together to provide a fully resourced care fund. Anger at an ecosystem that has made such limited effort into investigating how this wonderful sport might evolve to reduce the repetitive and high force head impacts that we now know, beyond all reasonable doubt, keep causing this damage.

Anger at a political system that sought headlines over a recent football governance bill that ignored the issue of player welfare, even after a parliamentary committee had found in 2021 that the industry was guilty of a “dereliction of duty” on this very issue. Where, after all, are those same politicians, or indeed player agents, in respect of an industrial disease application that seems to meet every known requirement but has been parked waiting for an answer now for more than three years?

Anyone doubting the link between dementia and football should consider the last few weeks alone when we have seen the family of Gordon Cowans revealing that Aston Villa’s greatest player has just entered a care facility at the age of 65.

And when we have just paid tribute to men like Stan Bowles and Chris Nicholl who, like Kinnear, died in their mid-seventies after being robbed of much of the past decade of their lives. There had been a similar flurry of bad news when Kinnear’s dementia diagnosis was made public in 2021, following on from Denis Law, Terry McDermott and Gordon McQueen, who himself died last year at the age of only 70.

And there will be numerous others over the next weeks, months and years. There are also many other families now in desperate need of financial support and wondering whether, even allowing for the FA’s guidance on reducing headers in training and the PFA’s education programme, the average player is actually any better protected.

Some would still have you believe that all of this is a coincidence. Or that a link to football and head impacts is not quite proven.

But major peer-reviewed research has also already been done and the findings were emphatic: Former outfield players are four times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease than the general population. The experts have also found no decline in that ratio since football moved into the Premier League era.

We also see and hear ourselves that it keeps on happening, year on year, month on month, to former players who did the exact same job.

Those same people – as the Kinnears did – will always also tell you that they know of similar awful stories from the families of other former players that they grew up with and with whom they now share the same nightmare.

When they went public with Kinnerar’s diagnosis, the family were also keen to get across stories of the “larger than life” Joe who would light up any room he entered and was part of achievements as a player and a manager that will go down in football folklore. How he retained a twinkle in his eye, and had been a fabulous grandfather to Russelle’s children Nick and Dan.

But they wanted to use their platform to bring about change.

Joe Kinnear and Mike England, Alan Gilzean, Martin Chivers, Ralph Coates
Joe Kinnear, right, won the Uefa Cup in 1971-72 alongside, from left, Mike England, Alan Gilzean, Ralph Coates and, back row, Martin Chivers - Action Images/File Photo

“I’ve been greatly saddened to see so many former players battling dementia,” said Bonnie, who had been together with Joe for some 55 years. “It’s just awful. There must be enough money in football to help those who need it. And they must take further steps to make the game safer for those playing now and in the future. More has to be done in both areas. This is not about us – it’s about the whole of football.”

Kinnear’s mentor was Dave Mackay, who died in 2015 after living with dementia in later life. The Kinnears were also close friends with Martin Peters and his wife, Kathy. Peters, a 1966 World Cup winner, died in 2019 aged 76 after also living with dementia since his late sixties.

“Common sense tells you that the damage starts as soon as you start heading a ball,” said Russelle. “This is about educating schools, academies, parents and coaches. It has been totally heartbreaking. Mum does not leave his side – she does everything for him. They are so dedicated to each other but it is beyond exhausting. And it is devastating.”

It is a powerful message. The question, once again, is whether enough people in football are listening or really care.

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