Burnley FC players' families call for action on Alzheimer's disease

·5-min read

Burnley's title winning heroes of 1959/60 are celebrated around Turf Moor, with framed pictures of an open top bus parade, a meeting at Wembley with the Duke of Edinburgh and goals from a team which was among the early proponents of Total Football.

But the medals, memorabilia and smiling faces do not tell the full story because a darker narrative is emerging. It's a depressingly familiar tale, exchange one club or one generation for another, yet football's institutions still cannot comprehend, or do not want to acknowledge, its magnitude.

Of the first 11 that momentous season; six have died with dementia and another - Jimmy Robson - is struggling with it now.

Robson is a gentle and endearing man with a warm, northeast accent and retains an incredible knowledge and thirst for football despite his illness. He has no regrets about the career he chose, but of one thing he is certain.

"Alzheimer's is a football disease," he says, "I used to head the ball, pass out for a second, get my wits about us and carry on."

Robson's face illuminates as he surveys from the stands at Turf Moor; the pitch looks like a green carpet, much different to his era, a time when players would spend the morning down the pit before walking to the stadium on match day.

I ask Jimmy how he felt when he heard of the death of Nobby Stiles with dementia last month and the news, just a couple of days later, that Sir Bobby Charlton had also been diagnosed. "It makes me very sad because I know I'll probably end up getting it, too," Jimmy says, before his daughter Dany corrects him, laughing.

Jimmy is, according to Dany, "a happy Alzheimer's person", but he's not the same.

"It started with him ringing me from the centre of Burnley, saying he'd lost his car," she says, "but then other things start happening. He goes from being your big, strong dad who's people's hero to a needing monitoring 24 hours a day.

"He can watch Chelsea v Burnley live on a Monday night and watch it again on a Tuesday afternoon and he thinks he's watching it live again," she says.

"It sometimes feels like they're a shell of a person, it's draining."

Anne McIlroy's dad Jimmy McIlroy, one of Burnley's greatest players, died with Alzheimer's two years ago and now she wants the condition in footballers recognised as an industrial disease.

"Every one of the funerals you go to there's always somebody else now," Anne says.

"People will say 'so and so's now got a diagnosis of dementia or a diagnosis of Alzheimer's' and I do think it's really important it's recognised and I do want the Football Association to acknowledge that it's something that needs looking into more."

Both women have had similarly frustrating experiences with the PFA, football's players' union, when they attempted to seek support.

"They just sent me a leaflet with general help for things like hip replacements," says Dany.

"I gave them my name and number but there was never any follow up so I just got in contact with the Alzheimer's society instead and they were excellent. They paid into this union and miners' and other unions look after their people and we don't feel like the PFA do. Dad's been treated well by his teammates and by Burnley but not by football."

A seminal piece of research by the University of Glasgow and Doctor Willie Stewart found footballers are 3.5x more likely to have a neurodegenerative disease than the general population and five times more likely to die with Alzheimer's.

"It can't just be a coincidence," says Jon Pointer, whose dad Ray Pointer also played in Burnley's title winning team and died with dementia.

"My dad's brother said that as a kid he would sit in his bedroom just heading the ball repeatedly against the wall."

Ray's decline coincided with his wife, Marilyn, having treatment for cancer.

"She'd be going for chemotherapy," Jon says, "and she'd pop her head into my dad who was sat in the front room and say 'I'm off now', and he'd turn round and say 'oh well have a good time' because he had no recollection of where she was going to. On her return she'd go in and tell him she was back and he'd ask if she'd had a nice time.

"It strips all their memories and you're kind of sat waiting and wondering how much worse it can get before the end, even though you never want the end to come."

Ray also says he wants Alzheimer's in football recognised as an industrial disease.

"It's kind of as if people in football don't want to talk about it," he says, "and the only people who do want to talk about it are those who have been through it or are going through it now with their families."

There have only been two recorded cases of the death of a footballer with Alzheimer's being recognised as an industrial injury, Jeff Astle in 2002 and Alan Jarvis 18 years later.

In light of recent research, more coroners are now considering recognising it as an industrial disease.

Sky News understands some families of deceased footballers have contacted coroners to ask them to reconsider the cause of death listed on a death certificate.

Most of the footballers wouldn't change their career even if they'd known what the future held.

But they and their families want research, support and acknowledgement that the game they loved may now be killing them.