Alan Hubbard

Ray Wilson, Martin Peters, Jack Charlton, Nobby Stiles and now Sir Bobby Charlton. All struck down by dementia, the first four fatally so. Is it just a cruel coincidence that the glorious Class of 1966 has been decimated by the same mind-crippling disease, along with Sir Alf Ramsey, the man who masterminded England’s only World Cup victory?

With the official confirmation this week that Sir Bobby has the disease, just days after the death of his Manchester United mate Stiles and three months after the funeral of big brother Jack, who was also suffering from dementia, the question of whether football, and in particular heading the ball, is totally responsible, has engaged us all again in vexatious debate.

Like the rest of us, I was deeply saddened when the distressing state of 83-year-old Sir Bobby’s health was made official, but not shocked. For I had suspected as much, having been friends with him for many years, dating back to the late 1960s when I worked on the Lancashire Evening Post, covering numerous Manchester United and England matches at home and abroad.

We were of a similar age and I got to know him and his wife Norma quite well over the years, and they had been guests at our home when we lived for a while in Singapore. He would chide me, a Londoner, for favouring the "wrong" United. West Ham rather than his beloved Manchester.

I interviewed him several times and when we last met face-to-face it was a dozen years ago in St Petersburg in Russia, where we both attended the Laureus World Sports Awards. As we chatted I noticed that his hands were trembling slightly, he was a little vague and his speech was slow and occasionally somewhat slurred. Parkinson’s, I thought immediately, having seen similar symptoms in Muhammad Ali some years earlier before his own illness became pronounced.

At least five members of England's World Cup-wining have suffered from dementia ©Getty Images
At least five members of England's World Cup-wining have suffered from dementia ©Getty Images

But I was wrong. I learned later that in fact Sir Bobby had the initial stages of a form of Alzheimer’s, but his family wished for it to be kept quiet. And so it was for several years as the condition took a firm and unrelenting grip on him about a year ago. Latterly he appeared less in public and in the directors’ box at Old Trafford. When he did he rarely spoke and looked gaunt and a shadow of his old self.

We still exchanged Christmas cards but I suspected that of late they were sent by Lady Norma. My fears about his disintegrating state of mind were confirmed when he did not attend Jack’s funeral in their native Ashington for "health reasons". Some hinted this was actually because there had been a long-standing feud between the brothers, but this had been healed and the reason that Sir Bobby was not there was because physically - and mentally - he was unable to make it.

The football world rightly demands to know whether the game itself has been responsible for the condition that has now affected half of the team that triumphed over West Germany 54 years ago, as well as a whole host of other players less famous, mostly lower-division journeymen but all from the days when the ball itself was much heavier than the lighter versions of today, especially when covered in the clinging wet mud of midwinter.

As it happens unlike his two-years-older brother, the centre half who was the stalwart of England and Leeds United, Sir Bobby was not a prolific header of the ball. Nor was Sir Alf, a trenchant fullback with Southampton, Tottenham Hotspur and England, an advocate of it.

"Football is what it says it is, to be played with the feet, not with the hips, the head or the backside," he would remind his players.

That is why he thought so much of Sir Bobby, who preferred to rely on the remarkably accurate firepower entrenched in his boots, scoring 249 goals in 759 games for United and 49 in 106 games for England, both records he held for 40 years.

Sir Bobby Charlton won the biggest prizes in football at both international and club level ©Getty Images
Sir Bobby Charlton won the biggest prizes in football at both international and club level ©Getty Images

Of course heading was, and still is, inevitable in certain situations, notably corner kicks when invariably the ball soars high into the goalmouth and both defenders and attackers have either to leap and meet it with their head to either clear or try to score.

Although a global problem - for example the German striker Gerd Müller, once of Bayern Munich, is also a victim - FIFA do not seem inclined to delve deeply into the dangers.In England too there is criticism that both the Football Association (FA) and the Professional Footballers' Association are paying it insufficient attention, although both bodies have helped fund a study into a study into the situation.

For some years now one of those those calling for further action is the daughter of former West Bromwich Albion and England striker Jeff Astle, a centre forward who was a great header of the ball.

Dawn Astle says it is time to "stop pushing the issue under the carpet" as she claims the FA has done since her father died in 2002, aged 59, suffering from early-onset dementia. A coroner found this was caused by heading heavy footballs and gave the cause of death as an industrial disease.

A subsequent re-examination of Astle’s brain found he was suffering from the neuro-degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which can only be established following death and has also been found in deceased American footballers, boxers and rugby players.

Glasgow University research has shown that ex-footballers are three and a half times more likely to die of dementia than the rest of the population.

"By the end he didn't even know he'd ever been a footballer," Jeff Astle's daughter said. "Everything football ever gave him, football had taken away."

Shortly before Peters, a player of sophistry and elegance, one of West Ham’s 'Holy Trinity’ together with Moore and Hurst, passed away a year ago the Premier League wrote to all 20 clubs to notify them it is considering what action needs to be taken following the publication of a landmark report confirming the link between dementia and football. There is a growing demand for a ban on heading for children and several academies have adopted this.

Bournemouth are one club who have already taken the matter into their own hands and stopped heading for the youngest players in their academy, while the Scottish Football Association has reduced heading among kids in football, although there is a debate over which age groups should be covered, including whether it should go up to the under-18s.

Sir Bobby Charlton was a London 2012 Torchbearer ©Getty Images
Sir Bobby Charlton was a London 2012 Torchbearer ©Getty Images

The study has followed a campaign for research into the prevalence of dementia and other serious neurological diseases among players. It found there was a five-fold increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s, a four-fold increase in Motor Neurone Disease and a two-fold increase in Parkinson‘s.

Of that World Cup-winning 11, only forwards Roger Hunt - now 82 - and 78-year-old Sir Geoff Hurst remain in good health. Bobby Moore, who lifted the trophy, died of bowel cancer aged 59, goalkeeper Gordon Banks of kidney cancer at 81 and the irrepressible Alan Ball of a heart attack aged 62 following a fire at his home. Fullback George Cohen is alive at 81, but hardly kicking as he is crippled by osteoarthritis and uses a walking frame though he is in remarkably good voice and sharp as a tack.

But however you look at it that team has been either desperately unlucky, or jinxed. Who knows?

So far, calls for a total ban on heading have been firmly resisted by both FIFA and the FA but as more high-profile stars, like Peters and the others in the Class of '66 are dying with dementia and Sir Bobby, one of the most illustrious and gifted players in football history becomes affected by the condition, it would not surprise me if heading the ball was not made an offence like handling the ball within the next decade or so.

While the argument grows stronger, coronavirus is still rampaging around the world so the medics have more than enough to deal with at the moment. But the reality is that as the cases of dementia escalate football now faces a pandemic of its own.