Tuesday 17 September 2019

PFA faces growing criticism as dementia issue escalates

Sam Wallace

Dawn Astle took a call on Friday from the daughter of another former professional footballer who says that her father's dementia is so bad now that he falls out of his chair and the care home that accommodates him is unable to afford the specially-constructed seat he needs.

The daughter of the late Jeff Astle, the West Brom forward of legend who was found by a coroner's court in 2002 to have been killed by heading footballs, has become the go-to person for the 300 families of former players who have died or are dying of dementia. From her front room in Derbyshire, she runs the Jeff Astle Foundation with her iPad and the devotion of a group of fundraising West Brom fans she calls the most "caring, compassionate, generous people I know".

On Friday, she promised to do everything she could to raise the £2,000 for the chair, just as she has done in the past, and no doubt the indomitable Astle will find a way. But over the past 48 hours she has also been absorbing the news of the first breaking of rank in an organisation that has dominated her thoughts for the last 15 years, the Professional Footballers' Association and its leader of four decades, Gordon Taylor.

"Bloody shameful" is how Astle regards Taylor and the priorities of the organisation of which he is chief executive. It spent £2m on a LS Lowry painting, £70,000 on a private box at Manchester City, £2.29m on Taylor's salary - just his latest eye-watering rise - and is said to have £50m lying in its reserves.

For research into the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that killed her father, just £100,000. And the subsequent investment that will show up in the next PFA accounts may never have come without Astle's intervention.

The difference this week is that Taylor's critics have not been those lone external voices like hers, trying in vain to force change upon the secretive organisation that is the players' union. They have come from its chairman, Ben Purkiss.

A Walsall defender who has played for York City, Port Vale and Swindon Town among others, Purkiss has been the first to speak out publicly on Taylor's PFA regime. He has not even made an outright call for Taylor to go, just that the PFA must change and would benefit from an independent review. Predictably, the PFA's efforts to oust him have been swift.

For Astle, it has been fascinating to hear Purkiss say that the PFA's spend of £100,000 on a study into the effect of heading a football and its contribution to dementia was grossly inadequate - even if she has known that for years. While she acknowledges the PFA does have good people within it, her strong belief has always been that Taylor must go.

With journalist Jeremy Wilson, Dawn has played the central role in a campaign to force the game's authorities to uncover the extent of football's dementia problem. Mystifyingly, the PFA, and Taylor in particular, have been reluctant to put any meaningful resources into researching CTE. There was a 2001 joint Football Association and PFA investigation into brain injury that followed 30 young players who subsequently dropped out of the game, rendering it inconclusive.

Under pressure last year, the PFA pledged to support new research by neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart, which began in January, 16 years after that first failure, and may cost as much as £500,000, shared with the FA. "The whole PFA regime has to go and it has to be modernised," she says. "We have to bring in new blood. People who will fight for all players, for those in the lower leagues. Other unions have fought tooth and nail trying to find out the effects of asbestos on their workers. Why haven't the PFA done the same?"

In despair at Taylor's intransigence, she walked out of an interview with him for BBC West Midlands' Inside Out programme last year. "When you talk about dementia, he just either changes the subject or goes off on tangents," she says. "When I asked him, 'Gordon, do you think you have a problem with dementia?' he started talking about osteoarthritis. I glanced at the BBC lady. I didn't know whether I was going to cry out of frustration or flip.

"He's so ignorant about it. It's insensitivity to all these players who have died or are living with it now, knowing they are going to die."

The list of grievances against Taylor is long: the money spent on fripperies, the money that has gone unspent, the money spent on himself and his own bloody-minded longevity that has seen him outlast 11 England managers. But it is the simple moral imperative to fund research into the likelihood that his older members, many of them poor and vulnerable, are suffering from an industrial disease that is the most shocking neglect of duty as a union official.

Astle says that she asked Taylor simply to commit the resources to finding out how many former players, who are all automatically life-members of the PFA, were suffering from dementia. "He said he couldn't do that. How can he not do that? They are terrified that this is the tip of an iceberg and they have done nothing. He's the union. The disrespect that this shows to all those players who are dying, completely stripped of all human nature, is staggering."

She has been in contact with Purkiss and told him that she had his support and an "army of football fans". It has been ordinary fans who have supported Astle, notably Jeff Astle's loyal West Brom supporters, and it will be them who raise the money for the next special care home chair. The Astle family's faith in Taylor was lost years ago.



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