The families of two of England’s 1966 World Cup winners, Jack Charlton and Nobby Stiles, are backing a new campaign to revamp sport’s approach to research into the links between dementia and repeated blows to the head.
The campaign is being co-ordinated by Dr Judith Gates, wife of the former Middlesborough centre-back Bill Gates, and has received the backing of Charlton’s widow, Pat, and Stiles’s son Rob and granddaughter Caitlin.
“I am supportive of these actions to improve the situation for players, so future players do not end up suffering the problems experienced by Jack and Bill,” Pat Charlton said. Jack Charlton died in July 2020 at the age of 85 after developing lymphoma and dementia, and a moving documentary that charts his final weeks alongside Pat will be released on 6 November.
Although there is no proven link between Charlton’s dementia and his playing career, the statements of support for the campaign come in the wake of the former Everton and Hull City midfielder Alan Jarvis becoming the second player, after former England striker Jeff Astle, ruled to have died as a result of industrial disease while playing football. The coroner ruled that Jarvis’s Alzheimer’s disease was caused by his repeatedly heading the ball.
Charlton’s World Cup teammate Stiles, 78, also has dementia. Rob and Caitlin said in a joint statement: “We must protect the welfare of players. There are too many vested interests in the game. We need independent research in order to protect the players of the future. We must promote education.”
If we can do anything to protect players in the future, this will be the legacy of Willie, Jack, Nobby and Bill.
The aim of the new campaign is to bring together academics, scientists, athletes, and care-givers to organise an independent, precautionary and player-centred approach to research into the long-term consequences of recurrent exposure to head injuries. They believe that the current approach of governing bodies means that “emerging knowledge highlighting the fragility of the brain” is “falling on deaf ears”. The group is currently planning its first conference.
Bill Gates, 76, has dementia and received a tentative diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive neurodegenerative disease for which there is no known cure, and for which the only widely accepted cause is repetitive head injuries. Judith believes his CTE was caused by his career in football. The diagnosis of CTE can be confirmed only after death.
“Every day Bill becomes less of himself,” she says. “Every day another part of him slips away, every day the light in his eyes dims further. ‘Gates was strong in the air’ sports reporters in the ’60s and ’70s regularly noted. Ironically, Bill is paying for that former strength. Escalating memory problems, bewilderment, confusion, anxiety, obsessive and compulsive behaviours and dementia are the unanticipated high price he and his family are paying.”
Willie Maddren, who played alongside Gates and Stiles for Middlesbrough and was managed by Charlton, died of motor neurone disease in 2000, at the age of 49. His widow, Hilary, said: “We do not want anyone else to have to go through this. If we can do anything to protect players in the future, this will be the legacy of Willie, Jack, Nobby and Bill. Everything will not have been in vain.”