Sport Writer Jasper Watkin reviews the new documentary film ‘Finding Jack Charlton’, shining a light on the concerning links between football and dementia

Written by Jasper Watkin
Studying American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham

Content Warning: This article talks of Dementia, which some readers may find upsetting.

The new documentary film ‘Finding Jack Charlton’ is ultimately about loss. The rise and fall of Irish footballing success in the 90s, the loss of control over the situation for Jack Charlton, and his own loss of memory, cognitive function, and happiness. Documenting the journey of the Republic of Ireland at major tournaments under Charlton, footage is combined with images of Jack with his wife and grandchildren more recently, as an older man.

The evidence of Charlton’s charm, wit and fire in the older footage is beautifully combined with sobering shots of him staring blankly in his home at a piece of art, depicting the 1966 World Cup winning team of which he was a part. The juxtaposition of these two men, young and old Jack, is a sweet but sad symbolisation of his decline as a result of his dementia. 

Charlton’s illness is an example of the ways in which playing sport at the top level can impact later life

Charlton’s illness is an example of the ways in which playing sport at the top level can impact later life. Charlton even comments in the film himself how much he headed the ball in the World Cup final, a suggested cause for dementia later in life. 

The documentary is a frightening and sad hint at what may be coming for many professional players in their later years, if aftercare is not improved or more is not done at younger ages to prevent damage being done by heading. There is a beautifully heart-breaking moment, near the end of the film. Jack is watching a video of him and his gallant Irish team singing after their elimination from Italia 90, drinking, smiling together. Jack’s wife asks if he remembers it, he doesn’t. ‘It’ll come back to you’ she says. Jack’s reply? ‘Yes. Probably.’

Five different members of the 1966 World Cup winning side…suffered or are suffering from dementia

The film certainly leads viewers to extend their thoughts beyond the particular, tragic decline that Jack Charlton went through and onto the wider issue that evidently exists. The film was released only a week after fellow England 1966 hero, Nobby Stiles, passed away after suffering from advanced dementia. Not long after, Jack’s brother, Bobby, has now officially announced his own dementia diagnosis. There have now been five different members of the 1966 World Cup winning side, who suffered or are suffering from dementia, not to mention many other players from other teams and countries. 

In reality, it’s easily understandable that if you spend a large percentage of your child and adult life heading a football, over and over again, later neurological problems are more likely to arise. Whilst it has not yet been scientifically proven that heading a ball directly leads to dementia, in a study commissioned by the FA and PFA, it was found that ex-footballers were between two and five times more likely to die from a neurodegenerative disease, like Alzheimer’s. 

Dr Stewart, who led the FA study, has been at the head of lots of key research surrounding the topic. For instance, more specific studies have been conducted on heading in the professional game. Stewart’s research found that heading has increased in the international game, with the average amount of headers at World Cup’s from 1994 to 2018 jumping to 93, from 71 in the previous era of 1966 to 1990. 

Just 20 ‘normal’ headers was enough for a player to then fail a pitch-side concussion test

To further add to the study, research conducted by Liverpool Hope University, showed that just 20 ‘normal’ headers was enough for a player to then fail a pitch-side concussion test. These are damning stats given the clear increase in this activity for players in the modern game.  

The FA has attempted to place some measures in, such as banning heading in children’s football training until the age of 12.. Some, however, disagree that this is not going far enough

The late Stiles’ son, John, has said that football governing bodies are ‘hiding behind the fact that it’s very difficult to get conclusive evidence of a brain injury’, due to the nature of many diagnoses, being after death. He further has claimed that it is ‘blatantly obvious’ that heading the football has led to these several cases of neurological complications. Given some of the studies’ results, it is hard to disagree.

‘Finding Jack Charlton’ is now available on DVD and digital download.

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