ALAN SHEARER gets a lot of stick for his “wooden” performances as a talking head on Match of the Day. A lot of that criticism is perhaps justified, he is rather good at stating the bleeding obvious in a somewhat pedantic and boring manner.
Alan Shearer - a very good programme
But, if the splendid documentary which he fronted on BBC1 last night does anything to bring peace and help to those many footballers whose later years – and their loved ones' daily lives – have been blighted by dementia and associated diseases, then he has mitigated some of his less-than-enlightening comments on television.
I have written quite a few obituaries on footballers, famous and journeymen, and, increasingly, using the standard template whereby the cause of death is mentioned right at the start, I find myself typing: “after a lengthy battle against dementia”, or, “his later years were blighted by Alzheimer's”.
These diseases are no respecters of persons, such absolute Scotland legends as Gordon Smith, Dave Mackay and Ally MacLeod fell foul of them, while I have - on the stocks, obituaries on at least two other great former Scotland captains who are in the final throes of lengthy battles with dementia. I am in no hurry to see these in print, but, it is only a matter of time before they are.
Shearer's tale, which was scripted by another sporting icon, former Wales Rugby Union skipper Eddie Butler, focussed to some extent on the battle which Dawn Astle, daughter of former England and West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle, has fought to get the link between heading a football and dementia recognised. The toll this has taken on Dawn was obvious.
Jeff Astle - perhaps the best-known footballing dementia sufferer
But, the insurance industry and the football one want more-definitive scientific proof of the link. At the end of the day, when the link is definitely proved, it will be the insurance industry which will be required to pay out, and given past evidence, on other diseases, they will use their considerable trillions in accrued wealth to fight it. The big insurance firms did not grow rich by paying out if they could avoid it.
The football industry too will take a lot of persuading before they will start to compensate those who, perhaps, had their later lives ruined by head injuries which were caused by the simple act of heading the ball.
Football does not have a good record in looking after its most-important sector – the common fans – or its next most-important sector – the players. Sure, today's big names are paid often obscene sums of money for their talents, of-course they have power to, either personally or through their agents, to agree contracts which sometimes mean, when they hang-up their boots, often in their early thirties, they need never do a “proper job” for the remainder of what is a normal working lifespan.
But, just as, too-many star-struck young kids, who put everything into the chance of a big-money career in football, are cast onto the scrap heap by 20 or 23, without qualifications or training in anything other than how to kick a ball well, too-many average players leave the game, further down the line, with the ticking time bomb of later-years health problems ticking away.
The sheiks and oligarchs who increasingly own and run our clubs are not too-bothered about this, while governing the game is increasingly being left to a football “civil service” who are neither civil, or if serving anyone it is themselves.
Shearer touched briefly on the position in the USA, where the owners of the NFL clubs in American football were forced into putting aside billions of their hard-earned dollars to offset claims of similar “industrial injuries” through head trauma suffered in their game. These guys are not known for their altruism, but they had to do it. I can see the same thing happening here and across the world.
It will be interesting to see what transpires from this excellent documentary. The fight for compensation is only beginning and well done Alan Shearer.
I PASSED on the other big football programme on Sunday night television, the BBC2 Scotland documentary on Bill Shankly.
As a distant relative of Wullie Shankly – although in the Ayrshire coalfields, second cousins twice-removed makes us family – I have to declare an interest. I have seen the trailer and know several of the locals who appeared. I always planned, however, to watch it on catch-up during the week, I had other things on on Sunday night.
Shankly - how would be have coped with modern football?
So, obviously I will leave any comments on the actual programme until after I have watched it. What I will say at this time is – I wonder what Wullie Shankly would make of 2017 football.
It is after all, 43-years since he quit the famous Anfield boot room for those final seven years of rudderless life. Football has changed an awful lot since then – not least because, when Shankly left the game, Scotland was the ninth-best team in the world.
I often wonder how Wullie an the other two-thirds of the “Holy Trinity” of Scottish managers of the time: Matt Busby and Jock Stein, or their English equivalent – Bill Nicholson, Brian Clough and Alf Ramsey – would cope with today's game.
When they were managing, while Jimmy Hill had seen to it that players were better rewarded than ever, things were still a long way off the riches they accrue today. Jean Marc Bosman had yet to make his game-changing stance and the clubs rather than the players held the whip hand.
Sure, club chairmen and directors could still sack managers as they pleased, but, the men in the suits were fellow Brits, to use the stock phrase: “butchers, bakers and candle-stick makers”, not American media moguls, Middle-East potentates, Russian oligarchs or Far-Eastern “business-men”.
The directors of Celtic, Manchester United or Liverpool back then, would accept being second, today, it seems, if a manager is not a winner, increasingly, he is a former manager. The rewards are greater, but, so too are the risks.