The Beautiful Game?

Many an advertising executive would have you believe we have the greatest league in the World. Surely a reason to celebrate, but you could also be forgiven for calling into question whether ‘The Beautiful Game’ is now just a distant memory of days gone by.  

Premier League chief receives £5million golden handshake. PFA CEO’s salary called in to question. Some EFL clubs have called into question a deal securing £575million as too cheap, a £5bn TV deal by the Premier League just a drop in the ocean of football’s riches, gambling firms dominating the front of players’ shirts and accusations that footballers are dying from dementia, abandoned by the game that killed them.

Many of those players affected by dementia, on a maximum wage of £10 per week, their families moving from city to city on short term contracts, helped build the beautiful game, before the arrival of TV money and long before the formation of the Premier League. 

Follow Dawn Astle, Nikki Trueman or Rachel Taylor on Twitter and you will quickly realise the pain and anguish being felt by the families of players whose later years have been blighted by a terminal disease for which there is no treatment, no cure.

Their plight and feelings of abandonment may sadly be a reflection of many families' experiences across the UK without a connection to football. The lack of resources in a health and social care system that is chronically overstretched and underfunded has left many more with similar painful experiences.

Dementia currently affects approximately 850,000 people in the UK and 600,000 family members who have had to become full time carers. It costs the UK economy in the region of £26bn a year, more than cancer and heart disease combined. So should football be expected to foot the bill for former players’ care and support? And if so, who should that responsibility lay with? 

We launched our first ever fundraising campaign, #SupportOurClubs on the 12th November on the first anniversary of the ground breaking, award winning, BBC1 documentary by Alan Shearer which investigated the possible links between football and dementia and the risks associated with a career of heading the ball. Working with the producers and the England legend on the documentary was a truly humbling experience. Shearer visited the home of Matt Tees, a Grimsby Town fans favourite who is now in his 70’s and is living with the disease. Matt’s wife, May, spoke about her own anguish but also her fears for their grandchildren who hope to follow their grandad’s chosen career. The film crew followed Matt, May and Alan to their local Sporting Memories club, which Matt has been attending for the past three years. As Shearer introduced the segment, he cited the club as an example of how football has to change its view of former players. How the game MUST begin to look after its own and end the assumption that once a career ends, players are thrown on the scrap heap. 

I’m writing this piece on my return from the glitzy and prestigious Football Business Awards. We were fortunate to collect a silver award on the evening for our work in supporting former players and older fans living with dementia, depression and loneliness. The event showcased many of football’s community foundations, which all 20 Premier League and 72 Football League clubs have.

You might expect these community foundations to be multi million pound organisations bankrolled by the millionaire or billionaire owners of clubs. The majority see little of the riches in the game and are run as entirely independent organisations, tasked with representing their club’s ‘brand’ in the community, engaging young children in football, education, mental health awareness, tackling youth unemployment, addictions, homelessness, the list goes on. 

We work with a growing number of these excellent organisations, many from the lower leagues and National Leagues where every penny truly counts, a world away from the riches of the TV cash. Perhaps Gary Neville is onto something when he feels there’s enough money in our beautiful game, it’s just not being applied properly?

So bearing in mind the massive disparity between clubs and community foundations wealth, should they be expected to be responsible to care for their former players? NO. 

Should ‘football’ be held accountable for their care and support? YES.

We’ve calculated that to be able to make Sporting Memories clubs locally available to the majority of people in the UK, we will need to open at least 200 more of these clubs and maintain the 100+ already running free of charge. We’re now calling on the guardians of ‘The Beautiful Game’ to work with us to put an end to the suffering of families and to provide the backing to support all former players living with this devastating disease. Can football set an example to our wider society? By caring for our players, our heroes, our role models, might this help our wider community through the power of sport as a role model?

How much would it cost and how could it be funded? Approximately 10% of a golden handshake would fund our work for a year. 1% of the annual income of football agents working solely with Premier League Clubs would allow us to open the new clubs. Just 0.3% of a January Transfer window budget would fund our work for five years.... 0.5% would likely cover all the requests for help and support through the organisations campaigning for former players and their families.

Whilst the continued questions being posed by the press on money in football reverberate, we now call on Football to collectively take action to support former players. We're not pretending this will happen overnight, though the solutions should be simple. So whilst we lobby the authorities and bosses, alongside other excellent organisations such as the Jeff Astle Foundation, to take the action required, we are asking fans to play their part too, either by volunteering or helping to fundraise. Together we can make sure every player receives the support they need. 

Find out more about our #SupportOurClubs campaign, read about how Sporting Memories supports former players and fans alike, how to donate and how to volunteer

Tony Jameson-Allen