Former Middlesbrough players' families welcome an inquiry into the link between football and long-term brain injuries

A parliamentary inquiry has launched looking at the link between sport and neurodegenerative conditions like dementia and Motor Neurone Disease.

In the first of two sessions, MPs were presented with scientific evidence showing research into the effects of head trauma from sporting injuries.

For the families of people who have suffered with degenerative conditions following careers in sport, the inquiry "has been a long time coming".

Willie Maddren spent his whole career at Middlesbrough - first as a defender, then a manager. He died from Motor Neurone Disease (MND) aged 49.

20 years on, his wife Hilary says she believes his illness was directly linked to his career in football.

Maddren is not the only player from the same era at Middlesbrough to be affected by a long-term brain condition. He played alongside Nobby Stiles and Bill Gates under Jack Charlton's management. Charlton and Stiles both died with dementia last year, and Gates is currently living with the illness.

It is thought the development of neurodegenerative diseases in sports people comes from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) - which is a progressive brain condition believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head and episodes of concussion. CTE can only be diagnosed after death.

When Nobby Stiles died in October, his family chose to donate his brain to researchers. Professor William Stewart, a neuropathologist from The University of Glasgow, studied it and presented his findings in today's inquiry. Stiles' son, John, says it was "riddled" with CTE.

76-year-old former Middlesbrough defender Bill Gates chose to retire at the age of just 30. His wife, Dr Judith Gates, says it was because he'd been suffering with migraines and knew he couldn't carry on playing. Gates was diagnosed with dementia in 2017.

Since then, Judith has been campaigning for more awareness of the dangers of concussion in sport and the impact in later life.

She is one of the founders of Head for Change - a charity launched in January that supports players and their families through neurodegenerative conditions. Judith's motto is "protect the players, protect the game", emphasising the aim is not to cancel sports, but make them safer so they can continue to be played.

In today's inquiry, MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee looked at evidence from scientists and charities. The Labour MP for Sunderland Central, Julie Elliott, is on the committee.

Going forward, former Middlesbrough boss and current England manager, Gareth Southgate has volunteered to take part in the HEADING study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The research forms part of the Football Association and Professional Footballers’ Association's efforts to look at what causes the link between an increased risk of neurodegenerative disorders and a career in the game.

The FA says it has "helped to lead the way in ground-breaking research" and is committed to supporting further research. Adding that this area of work is part of The FA’s 2020-24 Strategy.

The association is currently looking at the way the game is played in England, including issuing updated guidance on heading for all age groups between under-six and under-18 and supporting the trial of concussion substitutes across the Emirates FA Cup, Barclays FA Women’s Super League and FA Women’s Championship.