IT is the disease that among ex-footballers has most poignantly and sadly been associated with England’s 1966 World Cup winning team.
Last month, it was revealed that Bobby Charlton was the fifth member of the side that defeated West Germany at Wembley to be diagnosed with dementia.
Charlton’s brother, Jack, died aged 85 in July after suffering from dementia and lymphoma.
Ray Wilson, who was 83, died in 2018 and Martin Peters (76) passed away a year later. Nobby Stiles was 78 when he died in October after a battle with prostate cancer and dementia.
But it not only affects those in their 70s and 80s. Former Southampton defender Kevin Moore was just 55 when he died from Pick’s disease, a form of dementia, after being diagnosed aged 48.
In 2017, ex-Ireland international Kevin Doyle was advised to retire at the age of just 34. In a statement, Doyle said, “heading the ball was becoming problematic causing me to have repeated headaches”.
Doyle added: “After consulting experts in the field, it has been decided that to avoid the possibility of these symptoms becoming more serious and permanent, I will be hanging up my boots for good.”
Millwall’s Matt Smith sought out Doyle after his retirement. Smith witnessed his grandfather suffer from dementia. James Smith was a professional footballer who played for Clyde and St Mirren in Scotland.
Smith’s biggest asset is probably his heading ability, but with that comes obvious concerns.
“It is slightly worrying,” Smith told NewsAtDen last week. “I remember speaking to Kevin Doyle who was forced into early retirement, I touched base with him to hear his perspective on what happened to him. The doctors recommended to him that he cut his career short to prevent further damage.
“Touch wood, I’m fine within myself. Obviously I’m aware that you don’t see potential effects until further down the line.
“It’s a very, very unfortunate side of professional sport. You see it a lot with NFL players with a severe amount of head trauma. They don’t see that until later on in their lives.
“But hopefully there can be more research into it and information can come back to us in that regard. Hopefully it can be prevented, though I don’t know how they would do that. It is a touchy subject, for sure, but obviously a very relevant and important one.”
The fact that signs of damage don’t show usually until much later in life makes it almost impossible for a player to assess whether to end their career early.
Smith is from a rich football lineage, his father Ian also a former footballer who played for Birmingham, where Matt was born.
Ian Smith is a qualified doctor and once asked his son a tough question.
“That’s obviously the tricky part about the disease, it’s something that comes on later on in life. That makes it difficult,” Smith says.
“My dad once asked me, ‘if you knew there was a more significant chance of you getting it, would you stop playing?’ I said, ‘probably not’.
“Some people have suffered terribly and others have got away with it that I’m sure headed the ball plenty of times. Like anything, there are huge risks in life.
“It’s certainly a very relevant subject. I witnessed first-hand my grandfather deteriorate pretty rapidly, just over a decade ago now. To witness that first-hand is difficult and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
Smith was already making plans for a career in the business world even before he went into professional football.
He qualified with a degree in International Management with American Business Studies from The University of Manchester, after a year in the United States at Arizona State University.
Smith combined studying with playing non-league football for the likes of Droylsden and Solihull Moors, before getting his professional break with a move to Oldham.
Smith is now working towards a Master of Business Administration (MBA), also at The University of Manchester. The fact that Covid-19 means the course is currently studied remotely helps London-based Smith.
“When you get into your 30s you start thinking what life is going to be like in the next chapter,” Smith says.
“Unfortunately, the profession does come to an end so I like to spin my plates ahead of time to allow me to go into something else, whenever that day comes.
“I wouldn’t like to finish and then think, ‘what now?’ I’d like to stay ahead of things.
“I’m six months in and I’m really enjoying it, it’s very tough. Part and parcel of the MBA is who you network with and who you meet. I’ve already been in a group with senior executives from Google and huge corporates in America.
“I think sometimes it’s a little bit like a fish out of water, but it’s another focus. I think it kind of complements the football in terms of providing a different focus and mental stimulation.
“Footballers obviously need a rest outside of football and to put their feet up, but there’s only so many times I can meet a friend for a coffee. It’s quite nice to have something else to put my discipline and focus to.
“Obviously universities have gone remotely. In a funny kind of way it’s proved to be more of a help to me given my current circumstances, but there would be certain contact hours you would have to make over the next couple of years.”
Before the next chapter of his professional life, there is the outside chance that Smith could add another significant one to his playing career.
Ian Smith was born in Edinburgh, making Matt eligible for Scotland. Steve Clarke’s side ended a 23-year wait for a major finals appearance when they qualified for Euro 2020, which has been rescheduled to take place next year.
“It was an incredible achievement for them, absolutely deserved,” Smith says. “As far as I’m aware the Scottish FA are aware that I’m eligible and managers over the years have been aware I’m eligible.
“There’s been no interest, but it’s something that if the opportunity presented itself I would love to pursue.
“My dad is as Scottish as they come, my football heritage is Scottish with him being my mentor. He’s always been that guiding figure for me in terms of football. So as much for him as for me it would be an incredible opportunity.
“But that’s only going to come with consistency and goals. Time will tell.”
Image: Millwall FC