50 years ago today, English football experienced it’s golden moment as our national team won the World Cup on home soil. It was the first and so far only time we have been victorious at a major tournament, and that 1966 team will go down in history. But obviously I wasn’t alive when Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy, so I can’t recount my stories, nor can I delve deep into the archives or interview those involved. If you want that kind of thing, I suggest you read some ‘proper journalism’!
Instead, I thought I’d write about something more personal to me to celebrate the boys of ’66, and in particular those players in the squad who have dementia. Left-back Ray Wilson, winger Martin Peters and midfielder Nobby Stiles were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in their sixties while centre-back Jack Charlton has been struggling with memory loss since his late seventies. Alzheimer’s is also a disease which my late grandfather suffered with, whilst my grandmother has been diagnosed with dementia.
In my opinion, it is one of the worst illnesses to get. Of course, any illness is terrible, but dementia means that those affected lose years worth of memories that are the most important to them. The best moments of their lives are gone in an instant. They are priceless yet so easy to lose without knowing. It’s incredibly sad when these memories are of being part of your country’s greatest ever sporting triumph, the feeling of euphoria and jubilation running around Wembley and holding the trophy aloft. What’s even more harrowing is the fact that Wilson, Peters and Stiles all sold their winners medals from the World Cup because the memories they had were ‘much more important’. Those memories are now devastatingly gone.
Ray Wilson, now 81, no longer knows he is a national hero. He wakes up every day singing Frank Sinatra songs and spends his time drawing after suddenly developing an artistic streak. It is these quirky, weird moments that are the light-hearted side of the disease. My granddad use to spout out sentences in French totally out of the blue, whilst my grandmother regularly tells me of how she went on a Caribbean cruise last week whilst in her nursing home.
In the 2014 Dementia report, it was revealed 1 in 6 people in the UK over the age of 80 have dementia. It is a problem that is only getting bigger, with the study suggesting that by 2025, there will be be 1 million people in the UK living with dementia.
Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s. This means that the diseases will continue to get worse over time unless new treatments can be found quickly. But for 25 years, the Alzheimer’s Society has been helping to fund research into the cause, cure, care and prevention of all types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
However, investment in dementia research is still low. Despite a welcome government focus on dementia over the past three years, research into the condition still only receives around three per cent of the government’s medical research budget. Combined government and charity investment in dementia research is 6.4 times lower than cancer research. Raising investment in dementia research to a similar level will help to drive forward much-needed progress towards a cure.
Myself and the rest of my family have been doing the ‘Memory Walk‘ for the past five years now, which is basically just a sponsored walk that takes place up and down the country to raise money for research and care. But there’s plenty of other things you can do to to help the Alzheimer’s Society from sporting events to your classic cake sale for charity.
This is perhaps the most non-football post I have ever written on this blog, but it seemed like the right time to do it. Sir Alf Ramsey, manager of the Three Lions, also suffered from Alzheimer’s before his death in 1999, and occurrence of the disease in footballers seems to be increasing. Whether you think that this has anything to do with heading heavy balls or just a coincidence, just think about losing all your football memories.
I know some of the best moments of my life so far have been football related, and if you’re reading this blog then it’s probably the same for you. Football is my passion, as it was for Ray Wilson, Nobby Stiles and Martin Peters. But this has been taken away from them by Alzheimer’s, erasing it from their mind.
The incredible story of 1966 will forever be the greatest story in English football. But it’s a story some of the stars of the team can no longer tell. And that is the saddest story of all.
The Alzheimer’s Society: www.alzheimers.org.uk
Alzheimer’s Research UK: www.alzheimersresearchuk.org
The Jeff Astle Foundation (brain injury in sport): www.thejeffastlefoundation.co.uk