Home Sport Former Norwich striker Iwan Roberts keen to improve awareness of dementia

Former Norwich striker Iwan Roberts keen to improve awareness of dementia


It’s the uncertainty that nags at Iwan Roberts. It’s the idea that something horrible is happening to footballers who weren’t so different from him and not knowing what could be waiting.

He feels fine and he’s been told he is. But like any of us, he will occasionally forget a detail. Maybe a name will slip his mind, or where he put his keys, and it is in those moments that this 52-year-old wonders about what he has seen and heard and experienced.

He thinks about Nobby Stiles, Jack Charlton, Martin Peters, Ray Wilson. Those lost boys of ’66. He’ll recall Dave Watson, Jeff Astle and more localised heroes like big Duncan Forbes at his former club Norwich. They and many others all fell in the fogs of dementia.

Iwan Roberts (R) wonders if there will be price for almost 800 games between 1986 and 2005

Iwan Roberts (R) wonders if there will be price for almost 800 games between 1986 and 2005

And so he asks himself if he will as well; if there will be a price for almost 800 games between 1986 and 2005, with more than 200 goals scored between the Premier League and League Two, a massive chunk of which were scored with his head.

‘It might have been half of them were headers,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘I was 6ft 3in by the time I was 18 and my height is possibly why I got my first contract at Watford. My head was a huge part of my game. Every goalkeeper pretty much targeted me with goal-kicks. In training too — I was probably heading at least 100 balls a week.

‘I remember when I was in the youth team at Watford in the ’80s, me and Dean Holdsworth after every session would go with two wingers and 50 balls. They would cross them one after the other, from the left and right. We had a great time doing that. But you would come off after 45 minutes and your head would be sore. If you didn’t catch it right it was very painful — a brain freeze times 100.

‘Honestly, I wouldn’t change a minute of my career. I absolutely loved it. But what we are learning about dementia now, and what we are seeing with so many former players having it, it just makes you think.

‘I don’t want to be morbid or sound like I am planning my own death. But I look at Jeff Astle and he was diagnosed at 54 or 55 and he was a similar style of player to me — strong in the air. He died at 59 and I wouldn’t say I am worried about myself but I’m 52 and I do want to be aware. I want to know if dementia is waiting for me, and if it is, I want to be able to catch it early and slow it down.’

Roberts is an interesting figure in what has become a crisis for football. While too many in power within the game are paying only lip-service to the disease, the former Wales striker is among the retired players who have put themselves forward to assist research.

He made the decision to sign up to SCORES study run by neuroscientist Dr Michael Grey

He made the decision to sign up to SCORES study run by neuroscientist Dr Michael Grey

He made the decision about a year ago to sign up to the SCORES study run by the respected neuroscientist Dr Michael Grey, who has been tracking dementia indicators in a group of 34 former professional players from his base at the University of East Anglia. Mark Bright is among the sample, all of whom are aged over 40, with the requirement that they perform tests online every three months over a number of years.

‘These tests mostly measure the time it takes for a message to get from your brain to your hands,’ says Roberts. ‘It is stuff like matching items on a screen, so it might be matching 1 to A, 2 to B and so on. It’s easy to start with but when you get up to 10 the screen is congested and it becomes more of a test. They want to build up a bank of results over time and track where you are with it.

‘For me, it just made sense. I have a family, I owe it to myself and them to know what is going on. I have been a bit forgetful the past few years and usually I think it is because I don’t concentrate but you would want to know, wouldn’t you?’

Former striker Jeff Astle began to suffer from dementia at the young age of 55

Former striker Jeff Astle began to suffer from dementia at the young age of 55

A coroner ruled Astle died from dementia brought on by repeatedly heading the ball

A coroner ruled Astle died from dementia brought on by repeatedly heading the ball

The thorny issue is why Roberts’ enthusiasm for knowledge on this desperately important subject is not so obvious to those of influence and means.

The Professional Footballers’ Association have backed three studies, and their accounts for 2018 and 2019 show investment of £325,000 into dementia and concussion research for that period. But is it really enough from a wealthy union when evidence finds that footballers are three-and-a-half times more likely than the general population to die with dementia?

When they were previously contacted by Dr Grey, who wanted awareness of his study to be spread to their members, it is perhaps instructive that he says the ball was passed to the FA. Against that backdrop, SCORE is trying to raise £100,000 via crowdfunding and has so far managed just £700. Therefore, it is natural to wonder why far greater support isn’t forthcoming from the relevant authorities.

‘I do think the PFA and the FA could do more than they have to help,’ says Roberts.

Nobby Stiles died earlier this month aged 78 after a battle with dementia and prostate cancer

Nobby Stiles died earlier this month aged 78 after a battle with dementia and prostate cancer 

As an ex-player, he is loath to enter a blame game for the causes of an issue that dates back to a time of less understanding. But equally he believes that what has been uncovered by science needs to be heeded, not least in junior football.

He also thinks more needs to be understood about current risks, moving away from a narrative that dementia is a problem limited to an era of heavy, rain-soaked footballs.

‘I don’t think a heading ban in some junior levels is a bad idea at all,’ he says. ‘We know now that the brain is still developing in your teens. As for the balls, yes, they are lighter but a lighter ball means it flies quicker and arrives quicker.’

As ever on this topic, more research is needed. As ever, a few folk in power could do more to help that effort.

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