Former England captain Dave Watson's dementia battle

  • Arif Ahmed reports

The wife of a former England football captain suffering from dementia says he "would have stopped playing" the game if he knew the risks at the time.

Former Rotherham United, Sunderland and Manchester City centre back Dave Watson, now 77, played 65 times for his country, including three as captain, during his 20-year career between 1966 and 1986.

In 2014, he was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which led to dementia. He and his wife, Penny, believe it was caused by repeatedly heading the ball.

"We don't blame football, because nobody knew about it then, so it would be churlish to blame football," Penny said.

"It happened because of football, but back then the players and most of the clubs I think had no knowledge of [the risks] whatsoever."

Penny Watson (right) says her husband would have given up the sport if he'd been aware of the dementia risk earlier in his career.

They now want to see a change in the way head contact is managed in the sport.

"Thankfully over the last couple of years we've been able to get protocols and get it mandated, so for the current players and future players, it will hopefully not have the same outcome," Penny said.

"The most important thing is though, trying to get a diagnosis as soon as possible. For current players, we're hoping [they] can get scans done so they can have an idea if there's an issue," she said.

"I know with Dave for sure if at 35 he'd had access to these scans... he would have stopped playing completely instead of carrying on from 35 until nearly 39."

Dave now regularly attends the Millers Memory Club at Rotherham United's stadium, which was set up by honorary life president and former player John Breckin.

The idea came after the wife of another former teammate with dementia, Trevor Womble, got in touch during the coronavirus pandemic saying she was having difficulty managing with his condition.

John Breckin set up the Millers Memory Club during the coronavirus pandemic to help another former teammate.

"She said 'I'm really struggling here', so we set a zoom up and it went really well," said Mr Breckin.

Eventually it became a regular occurrence where former players could get together, look through old memorabilia and share memories of their playing days.

"It's just about football families," said Mr Breckin. "Basically it's to take care of these lads, and give them that bit of love and look after them.

"I've lost probably 14 or 15 players with dementia that I played with through my career," he said.

"We don't know who the next one's going to be."

Dave now has memorabilia up around his house, which helps with his memory.

"I quite like that," he said. "A lot of the football is still there [in his memory]."

Penny says the memory club has been "vitally important" to her and her husband, allowing Dave to interact with the "football fraternity".

Dave (centre) now regularly attends the Millers Memory Club with other former players to help remember their old playing days.

She thinks there's good progress with the way brain problems have been approached in recent years, but that still "absolutely not" enough is being done.

"It's baby steps," she said. "The problem is here that we're dealing with scientists a lot of the time... who do take an awfully long time to all come to the same conclusion."

Paul Raven, the head of personal development at the Professional Footballers' Association believes the awareness of potential issues has some way to go among the current generation of players.

"It's probably not an immediate concern to them, because they're young men and young women as professional footballers," he said.

"There's a lot more information being put out there now, there's a lot more work being done.

"At the PFA we have our own brain health dept now and a care fund which is in place to support players moving forward."

For now, the spouses of former players are the ones who have to deal with the impact of their brain injuries.

"It's 24/7," Penny said. "You become their mother."

"When you've known somebody for over 50 years and then the dynamics change, it's hard.

"You do have vague glimpses of the old person... it is still in there somewhere, sometimes, but with the partners at home, it's quite the opposite... particularly with the kind of dementia footballers are getting."

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