Andy Townsend was at his father’s bedside during his final days this summer when thoughts turned to his own future.
His dad, Don, played more than 300 times for Charlton and Crystal Palace. When he died in July, aged 89, he had been suffering from dementia for 10 years.
Townsend is 57 now. He has two grandsons. He is renovating a property in the Cotswolds.
Andy Townsend (R) lost his father Don (L) earlier in the summer after a battle with dementia
Talk to him, and there is a lot of living left to be done. He is as busy and brash as he was in midfield on the pitch. But then there is caution, too.
‘When I was sat there watching my dad in his last few moments, it did cross my mind, “Am I going to roll on 20 years and this could be me?”,’ he says.
Three weeks before his father’s passing, Townsend lost a father figure when his former Republic of Ireland manager, Jack Charlton, died aged 85. He too suffered from dementia.
Townsend was privileged to spend time with his old boss during his final years, filming the documentary, Finding Jack Charlton. And here is something: he never knew until recently that the two men he cherished most in life played against each other. By then, it was too late to ask either of them about it.
The former Republic of Ireland midfielder also lost a father figure Jack Charlton weeks earlier
‘It was an amazing moment,’ Townsend tells Sportsmail. ‘My sister sent me a programme of Charlton playing up at Leeds, back in 1961. In there are the pen pics — and there’s my dad for Charlton and Big Jack for Leeds. Wow. I wish I’d had the chance to talk to them about that. I just never knew.’
View a photo of Don and the likeness with his son is unmistakable. ‘Thank you,’ says Townsend. ‘It’s nice when I hear that.’
He goes on. ‘And that image, that is how I want to remember my dad, the man he was. He’d been in a home since my mum died eight years ago, and I saw the deterioration.
Townsend has opened up on the devastating impact dementia had on his father’s (L) life
‘I want to remember the days we played golf together. He wasn’t bad, by the way. I want to remember the only time I saw him play football, in a testimonial at Palace. It was only 45 minutes, but that was special.
‘I realised then my dad was someone who meant something to other people.
‘I always remember being with him after the game and meeting Brian Moore, the ITV commentator. He patted me on the head. To think we would work together later in life is incredible. I have such a distinct memory of that night. So the images from the last few years, I won’t allow them to stay with me.
The film ‘Finding Jack Charlton’ offers an insight into Charlton’s time as Ireland manager
‘That is the same with Jack. It brings a smile to my face remembering when he would give me a rollicking. In his prime, Jack was a force of nature. I love watching the footage of him as a player.
‘I played under him for 10 years. So to see him towards the end, it’s emotional and upsetting. But that’s what dementia does. That is why it is so devastating. It strips you of your personality, all the traits that make you the man you are. It leaves you a shell, and that’s what I saw with Jack and my dad. I saw my dad become visibly confused and frightened in front of me. It’s not nice when your own dad doesn’t know who you are. That’s very, very sad.’
That is Townsend’s motivation for sharing his own experience and supporting Sportsmail’s dementia campaign.
He wants to protect future generations, be that footballers or their families. He and his dad had many conversations about heading footballs.
Townsend wants to help give younger generations protection he and his father didn’t have
The evidence of there being a link between that and dementia, he says, cannot be ignored any longer.
‘Dad would tell me about throwing himself at the ball to head it clear,’ he said.
‘He’d say that many a time he couldn’t see straight for a few seconds. He was seeing stars and could barely focus.
‘We have now reached a watershed moment and something needs to be done within football. I have seen Sportsmail’s campaign and Chris Sutton’s work.
‘Football owes it to future generations of players to ensure they can stay healthy and enjoy their retirement, that they can enjoy their grandchildren.
Townsend played over 600 games in hcareer, and worries about the impact heading has had
‘How you achieve that is difficult. I have to stress, I don’t want to see heading taken out of the game. It would be unrecognisable.
‘But can we do less heading in training? Yes. Is there scope for protective headgear in training? I think so. Boxers wear a headguard for sparring.
‘It needs serious investigation. Football is such an important part of society now. During lockdown we missed it so much. Then it comes back and we’re so thankful. So we have to make sure that those people we enjoy on TV, their long-term future is taken care of.’
Finding Jack Charlton is out now on DVD and digital download
OUR CAMPAIGN IS MAKING A DIFFERENCE
It has been a fortnight since we launched our campaign asking for football to tackle its dementia scandal with the striking back page proclaiming that enough is enough.
Huge figures in the game such as Sir Geoff Hurst and David Beckham backed us . Within days, the campaign gathered immediate momentum as the PFA agreed to set up a dementia taskforce.
Then last weekend came more big news as the PFA called for heading in training to be reduced, which is one of the changes called for in our seven-point charter.
Then in midweek, Gordon Taylor announced that he will finally step down by the end of the season. We have also published the incredible story of Manchester United great Gary Pallister, just 55, who described his fears for the future after a lifetime of heading the ball.
On Saturday we had a moving interview with 62-year-old Gordon Cowans, the Aston Villa legend, who was diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s in March.
We will keep fighting for change. We want to work with the football authorities — not against them. But we need action. And we need it now.