Players let down over dementia risk, says Kinnear daughter

Joe Kinnear
Joe Kinnear managed clubs including Newcastle, Wimbledon and Luton Town [Getty Images]

The daughter of the late former Wimbledon and Newcastle manager Joe Kinnear says he and players of his generation were “let down” by the football authorities over the risk of dementia.

Kinnear, who played for Tottenham Hotspur, was diagnosed with the degenerative brain disease in 2015 and died in April at the age of 77.

Earlier this month it was revealed that his family are among a number of claimants taking legal action against some of the sport's governing bodies over brain injuries allegedly suffered during their careers.

Russ Doffman told BBC Sport she suspected that repeated heading drills her father took part in involving “loads of headers with a very heavy leather ball...caused damage to his brain over the years”.

She said the Kinnear family had joined the lawsuit to get “justice for players, and to try to get some help for [those] still around.

“If it helps others then we’re all for it, and if we have to go through court we will because it’s so important,” she said.

Doffman is also calling for better education for young players over the risks of head injuries in the sport, and says that the football industry should do more to help the families of former players who have dementia with the financial cost of care.

The claimants in the case allege that the defendants - the game's lawmaking body Ifab, the Football Association, the English Football League, and the Football Association of Wales - were negligent in failing to take reasonable action to protect players from permanent injury caused by repetitive concussive and sub-concussive blows.

'Watching him fade away was awful'

Doffman says her father’s decline after being diagnosed with dementia was “heart-breaking”.

“We noticed his moods were changing,” she said.

“During my teenage years he was such great fun - very outgoing and positive, but then he started getting verbally aggressive. His whole personality changed and he went very quiet.

“He had it for 11 years. Watching him fade away was awful.

“My mum’s ok – she’s a tough cookie. We miss him – there’s now a massive hole in our lives, but we’re happy he’s now at peace because it was a long, horrible journey.”

Kinnear - who played 200 times for Spurs and earned 26 caps for the Republic of Ireland - eventually had to be moved into a care home.

When asked if her father shared her opinion that heading the ball was “a big part” of what caused his dementia, Doffman said, “Not really. He was probably in denial, as we all were".

Research commissioned by the FA last year found former professional footballers are almost three and a half times more likely to be diagnosed with dementia than the general population.

'Heading education is key'

Earlier this month, the FA said it was introducing a new rule to phase out deliberate heading in grassroots youth matches at under-11 level and below across England.

Doffman welcomes the move, but says more still needs to be done to explain to young players that there could be risks with heading.

"I've got two sons and I used to go to their football training and they were told to put their whole weight into heading," she said.

"This is what concerns us now going forwards.

"Both are still playing and I've said 'for goodness sake, don’t head the ball so much'. But that's why it's so key people are educated in what it does."

'Families feel neglected in hour of need'

Doffman says that regardless of whether the football industry ultimately accepts that there is a causal link between the sport and dementia, it must do more to support players who are diagnosed with brain disease.

"Even if they felt it wasn't linked, they have a duty of care," she said.

Towards the end of Kinnear's life, his family applied for financial assistance from a dedicated support fund to help with the cost of his care - which was several thousand pounds a month.

"We didn't like to ask for anything, but it gets to a point where sometimes you need a bit of help. I wish I hadn't bothered. I wish I hadn't lowered myself," says Doffman.

"When Dad became ill, it was like 'you're done'. We received very little in support. A lot of the families feel they've been totally neglected in their time of need.

"His generation have been really been let down and left behind. So many are struggling financially. Salaries were so low. It's hard enough, the most stressful time, and then to worry when the invoice comes in from the care home. This is a multi-billion pound industry. It seems so cruel and unfair just to leave people to it."

Last year the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) and the Premier League launched a new brain health fund, with an initial £1m available to assist former players and their families who have been impacted by dementia and other neurodegenerative conditions.

The PFA says £800,000 of financial support has so far been given to more than 70 families of former players, with an additional £500,000 ring-fenced for next season.

More than 200 families are receiving other forms of practical and emotional support, with the PFA saying they are keen to encourage more to come forward.

The football authorities have previously said that they cannot comment on ongoing legal proceedings but that they take the welfare of players seriously. The FA has said it plays a "leading role in reviewing and improving the safety" of the game, including supporting "multiple projects in order to gain a greater understanding of this area through objective, robust and thorough research".

The players or their families involved in the litigation initiated their legal claim two years ago. It also includes the family of 1966 World Cup winner Nobby Stiles, who died in 2020, and had prostate cancer and advanced dementia.

His brain was diagnosed as having chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) - a form of dementia that is believed to be caused by repeated blows.