Ron Saunders who guided Aston Villa to the 1981 English League crown is suffering from dementia and his son believes it is in part down to heading the ball when an uncompromising striker back in the 1950’s and 60’s.
The 85-year-old — one of only two Englishmen still alive to have managed a title-winning side — has been in a care home since May after his wife Breeda acknowledged she is not capable of looking after him.
His son Ronnie told the Portsmouth News that his father is suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) the same type of dementia as that which caused the death of former England striker Jeff Astle — who died from brain trauma caused by heading old heavy leather footballs.
“I know him, if he had known this was going to happen to him it would be ‘You put a pillow over my head’,” Ronnie Saunders told the newspaper.
“Unfortunately he’s like a lot of other pros — in a nursing home for their last days.
“They have given it one of their dementia names, his brain has gone.
“His brain has been damaged — and I think heading balls has contributed.
“I know Jeff Astle’s daughter, Dawn, and she told me a survey showed that most ill centre-forwards and centre-halves have some form of brain problem.”
Saunders, who was very much his own man as a manager walking out on Villa just months after the league title triumph missing their subsequent European Cup victory, enjoyed his greatest success at Portsmouth during a 16 year career as a player, scoring 145 goals in 236 appearances in six campaigns for them.
Saunders is just the latest of his generation of footballers to have his dementia linked to heading the old style ball.
Last week another former Portsmouth player wing-half Rod Taylor’s death was diagnosed as a similar form of dementia linked to heading the ball.
Several other high-profile footballers — including a trio of England’s 1966 World Cup winning team in Martin Peters, Nobby Stiles and the late Ray Wilson — have also been diagnosed with dementia.
Last week Bennett Omalu, who was the first specialist to discover how American footballers were affected by CTE, called for children under 18 should not be allowed to head the ball.