'I suffered migraines' - Middlesbrough legend Gary Pallister opens up about dementia worries

One of Gary Pallister's first trips to Ayresome Park was for Bill Gates's testimonial match against Leeds United in May 1974. Then just shy of his ninth birthday, little would he know he'd one day grace that turf himself - and later the Riverside too, with a spell at Manchester United in between.

It was a glittering career that saw the Norton-raised centre-back win four Premier League titles, three FA Cups and plenty more. But, 23 years after he retired at the end of his second spell at Boro, the reality of the potential cost of all that glory is not lost on him.

Pallister speaks candidly with Teesside Live in a side room at Ferryhill's Workingman's Club - very deliberately chosen by Bill Gates' widow Judith as the venue for the book launch of No-Brainer - somewhat the tale of how Bill went from the streets of Ferryhill to playing for Boro, but more importantly, about the damage that his career had on his later life.

READ MORE: Middlesbrough legend Bill Gates' life told in new book that highlights football's biggest problem

Dementia-like symptoms, confirmed after death to be chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) ultimately brought his passing last year, aged 79. The defender had battled for well over a decade with the debilitating disease.

Little would eight-year-old Gary, watching on at Ayresome Park that day in May 1974, have known, the reason Bill was retiring aged 30 was due to migraines he suffered as a player. They would end after his career, and for the next 30 years he lived a healthy and successful life as a sports shop entrepreneur before the dementia symptoms began to take hold.

It's a story that really hits home for Pallister, and it's why he's here in Ferryhill supporting the book launch - having also lost two people he knew well in Nobby Stiles and Gordon McQueen to dementia - with the damage caused by heading footballs throughout their career believed to be prominent factors for all three, and many, many more.

“I absolutely worry about it," Pallister says candidly about his own career, before revealing, "I suffered migraines throughout my whole football career. For three or four years they were probably quite debilitating as well. I would lose my speech, get a tingling down my arm, get blind spots...

"I used to wonder then if it was anything to do with heading a football, but there was no real research into that. You were just left to your own devices in terms of figuring out what it was. As soon as I finished playing football, I don’t think I had another migraine for another ten years.

"That speaks volumes to me about what heading actually did. I didn’t know there was a risk it could cause dementia, of course. Now it’s all being linked together, however, I can look back and think I was probably right with my suspicions at the time on heading a ball.”

Pallister's admission is a harrowing comparison to Bill - with the man currently sat before me in Ferryhill a picture of health at 58. There's obvious concern about what the future might hold, but equally, a determination not let it consume him and spoil his enjoyment of a life he enjoys thanks to the fruits of his illustrious career. Change for the future is important to him, however.

Bill's widow Judith has founded the charity Head Safe Football in memory of Bill. With years of research and campaigning behind her, she is determined to help make football safer for its participants. Her campaign is not one to end football because she knows as well as anyone the joy it brings to so many, her husband Bill as much as anyone. It's fair to say her efforts to educate and safeguard aren't always met with support from the powers that be,however.

There are, though, increasing measures being taken to try and improve things. The FA recently announced it would be phasing out heading footballs for under-11s at grassroots level, while current guidelines to professional clubs suggest heading should be limited in practice to ten per player a week. They've gone a bit further in Scotland, banning heading altogether in training the day before and after a game too. But more could and should be done.

"They’ve done enough to realise now that heading can cause these problems and it’s something we’ve got to put out there and educate people about," Pallister says. “One thing I would say, it's also important to get help for the people before my era. A lot of the guys from my era will be capable of supporting themselves financially.

"It’s the guys who weren’t able to make their money from football - lower division guys as well - they need our help. Even Nobby Stiles, a World Cup winner who played for Man United, he couldn’t afford to pay for his care. The powers that be in our game need to be more proactive in dealing with this problem.”

On protecting players of the future, as he considered a moral quandary about his own career with hindsight, he said: “Players coming into the game need to be aware of the danger and having all of the information they need, while I’m sure there is still more we can do to protect them.

"If I had the information, would I have still played football? That’s such a tough call. It gave me so much enjoyment, a job and a lifestyle. I’ve always considered myself very fortunate to have a job that I loved. It’s a difficult thing to consider, but you’ve got to at least inform players of the risk.

"They are taking some positive steps. What else can be done remains to be seen. That we are more aware of the damage it can do should be a positive step towards making the required changes. The powers that be just need to be more open about it and not stick their head in the sand hoping it goes away, because it’s not.”

As for his own concerns, currently while CTE can be suspected before death, the only way it can be confirmed is after via an autopsy. While Pallister, who turns 59 this month, takes steps to try and limit his risk, the potential that the damage might already be done - as was the case for Bill who lived for over 30 years before his symptoms took hold - is clearly not lost on him.

“I try to keep my mind active," he says. "I was reading something just recently on the importance of social activity and meeting people as you get older. That’s great for preventing dementia. I try to take care of myself. The food you eat, drinking, smoking, it can all have an effect.

"Unfortunately, whether it matters after all the footballs I headed, I’m not so sure. At the moment, apart from the odd moment of forgetfulness, I think I’m okay. In the future, I just don’t know.”

No-Brainer: A Footballer's Story of Life, Love and Brain Injury, written by Mike Amos, is available now from Amazon but can also be purchased from the publisher Haythorp Books, priced at £14.99. All royalties from the book will go to Head Safe Football - the charity founded by the Gates family dedicated to player care, education and raising awareness of CTE and its prevalence among sports people subjected to repeated head impacts. You can find out more about the charity on its website.