Listening to the news, Chris Sutton afforded himself the thinnest smile when discussion turned to the latest drive to protect the health of footballers.
‘There was Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola talking about five substitutes,’ Sutton explains. ‘And then Ian Holloway — who I like — was telling everyone that players’ health is in danger with this number of games. I read a columnist calling on the PFA to act, too.
‘And, really, that would just about sum it up for me, if the PFA jumped in on this. Look, I understand the argument about too many games; I see both sides of five substitutes. But we’re talking muscle injuries. And you can’t die from a f****** muscle injury.’
Chris Sutton (left) has opened up to Sportsmail about his father Mike (right)’s dementia
He pauses. He doesn’t want to get too angry, he’s tired of that. He wants to be measured.
‘Meanwhile, players are genuinely dying from Alzheimer’s, from dementia,’ he continues, ‘but football doesn’t want to campaign about that. Come on. I get that they’re separate issues. But it sums up the total lack of support.’
Sutton is now spearheading Sportsmail’s campaign it is hoped will change this. Part of that involves a push by consultant neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart for concussion substitutes and to minimise the risk of heading footballs. Not a ban; a recalibration.
Everyone is surely aware of the key numbers now — that professional players are 3.5 times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease — just as everyone is aware of the household names afflicted.
Sir Bobby Charlton is the headline, but Sutton’s father Mike is more typical. Without his bravely outspoken son, he would be just another statistic, one of the 500 former professionals campaigners at the Jeff Astle Foundation known to be dying from the disease.
Mike Sutton was a midfield player with Norwich, Chester and Carlisle, before a knee injury ended his career in 1972. He took a biology degree at Loughborough University and became a schoolteacher.
Then, in 2010, a year after his retirement, behavioural change began to occur.
Sutton’s mother, Josephine, documents the deterioration on these pages, but for her son, this is as much about the progress that has to be made, and the inertia and resistance advocates on the issue face.
‘Dawn Astle is unrelenting,’ he says. ‘I’ve got so much admiration for her. Jeff died a long time ago, but she keeps going despite the setbacks. It just feels as if we never move on. There was the Alan Shearer documentary and it looked as if that was going to make a difference, but then it just went by the wayside, too.
Sutton praised Dawn Astle, daughter of ex-player Jeff, and her work in dementia awareness
‘Journalists write about it, but nobody inside the game responds. I can’t understand why. There are a lot of high-profile people in football who have opinions on all sorts of subjects: American politics, British politics, on Brexit, but dementia? Nothing. And I don’t get that.
‘I don’t understand why there’s no urgency because simply, in 20 years, a lot of these people will have it. And their families will be suffering, as we are.’
Incongruously, it is Christmas already in the Sutton household. Tree up, decorations out, the whole place smelling of scent.
Chris blames his wife, Sam, and his daughter Sophia. Yet why not? Christmas brings rare cheer and hope in what has been a rotten and strange year. Covid has only exacerbated the loneliness of Mike Sutton’s descent into oblivion. Chris is no longer allowed to visit his father unless it is to say a last goodbye. Josephine thinks that day is not long coming.
‘She’s been called in twice in the last week or so,’ Sutton says, his face clouding. ‘But he’s always been super fit. He’s got a strong heart. He’s a shell, he can’t get up, he’s lying there in a nappy, but he’s tough too, he’s done years of training.’
An artist in Scotland, hearing Sutton’s story, sent him a painting of father and son together on the day Chris signed for Blackburn. They both look young in that. It must feel a lifetime ago.
Sutton (right) is grateful for the influence of his father (left) during his goal-laden career
‘The difficulty is not knowing what else I can add when I speak about it,’ he says. ‘Even now, I worry about that. Just repeating myself, to no end. Gordon Taylor is an incredible survivor, and he may have done other good things across the PFA but how can he be football’s union boss and allow funding into research to stop?
‘In the last two years the PFA charity has earned nearly £54million, almost all from television money, it has paid Gordon Taylor £4,043,090 and fund managers £555,000 — and given £325,000 to dementia and concussion research.
‘Yet attack him and it washes off. Gordon will say his mum had dementia and she never headed a football. But that’s not the point. It’s just dismissive. Nobody is arguing that there aren’t other forms of the disease, other causes. But he knew about this one and he didn’t flag it up. How he can be in his position still is staggering.
The former Blackburn striker questioned PFA chief Gordon Taylor’s bid to combat the issue
‘It’s why Dr Stewart’s points are so important. Because they’re achievable. They’re not pie in the sky. Nobody is asking for heading to be banned. We’re talking about small changes. Yet among players now, or players even of my generation, ideas like this have never been backed. I don’t know why.’
He’s a smart man, Chris, so he probably does. If money increases for funding and research there is an inevitable conclusion that is going to be reached; and nobody wants to contemplate it. Muscle injuries can be addressed with fewer games, smaller leagues, scrapping the League Cup. Football endures.
Yet if hundreds of thousands of pounds across decades of research concludes, as it surely will, that heading kills, the game is changed for ever.
‘I agree that could be it,’ Sutton says. ‘But I haven’t thought that far ahead, to no heading at all. We’re not asking for heading to be banned. This campaign is: do a bit less. What we’re arguing for is just sensible. Lessen the load, monitor the effects. Have proper breaks between sessions, introduce concussion substitutes.
‘They exist in rugby. Why are we always behind? With concussion subs, it’s not even that a team would be disadvantaged. They can replace a player who may be concussed with one who isn’t. Wouldn’t you want that, as a coach?
Sutton is calling for football to introduce concussion substitutions, just like in rugby
‘We really shouldn’t even have to ask for it. Everyone knows about the macho b******s in football. You get smashed, you go down, the physio asks if you are OK and you say yes. He asks how many fingers he’s holding up? It’s one. It’s always one. And you’re all right to carry on. It’s stupid.
‘Dr Stewart isn’t saying ban heading in games. He’s talking about limiting drills in training. It’s not extreme. They measure everything in football now. How far you run, how much of that is in sprints.
‘So what is the issue in measuring heading drills to protect your health further down the line? I can’t think what the argument is against it. We have guidelines on Under 12s, but what happens after that?’
Again, we can speculate. Could it be that finite protocols are an admission that a problem exists, and therefore that liability exists, and then the financial claims start?
‘But the people I speak to aren’t looking to sue anybody,’ Sutton replies. ‘Dawn Astle, John Stiles, Tony Parkes’ daughter. We’re just advocating sensible precautions. Head a ball 25 times in a session and your memory is impaired for 24 hours. The evidence is there. What’s the downside?’
It upset Sutton recently when it was decided Mike could not spend his final days at home. That was the plan, to return to the house he had lived in since 1974, where Chris and his siblings were brought up.
Mike could no longer walk, but Josephine thought he could at least have lain and looked out of the window. Even that was considered too much, in his current enfeebled state.
‘It was a bit like The Good Life, my upbringing,’ Sutton recalls. ‘They used to grow their own vegetables. They planted an orchard for apples and greengages. We had sheep, we had chickens until a fox got in, we had goats. Goats’ milk, goats’ butter. It was disgusting. I grew up hating goats’ milk. And, I mean, the smell. But it was really good to live that way.
Striker Sutton (right) won the Premier League in 1995 with Blackburn and Alan Shearer (left)
‘And if I hadn’t had a dad like him I wouldn’t have been a footballer, I know that. My career took off because of him. I was good on a local level, but nothing special, I wasn’t gifted.
‘I got released by Norwich when I was 12, but the years after he would drag me out of bed — literally — to go and do circuits in the gym. He’d make us do cross-country. We’d go to Lowestoft to see my grandparents and he’d even work the b******s off us there. You’d want to walk down the front with chips and an ice cream and he’d say, “Right — let’s do 10 slope runs” up this big embankment.
‘Social media is a horrible place, but what makes me proudest is that, since it’s been known about his illness, there has been a local response and they’ve all been paying compliments, even the old rogues. They all say he got them playing sport, and enjoying sport. It wasn’t a private school, but we were very successful. They’ll say he was tough, he was a disciplinarian, but he was fair, very fair.
‘We had three brilliant table tennis players, plus me and another boy and we got to the national final at Matlock. He took all five of us up there because a team needs four, picked the three best players and the other boy, and left me out.
Sutton was released by Norwich City at 12, but his father’s influence allowed him to go back
‘That’s how fair he was. So I never took any s*** about being favoured. He’d often be the referee for our school football games. If I went down, as he ran past he’d say out of the side of his mouth, “Get up”.’
Heading practice too, no doubt?
‘Absolutely,’ Sutton confirms. ‘We used to practise heading in the garden, or at the school. He’d practise corners with me, driving them in and I’d stand on the penalty spot and head them. The repetition was helpful in getting the timing right, no doubt. It helped shape my career. And we wouldn’t have given it a thought.
‘I don’t think anyone really knew about the possible consequences before the Jeff Astle case. There are earlier speculations and concerns, but nothing greatly public.
Jeff Astle’s dementia cases was one of the very first Alzheimer’s cases in football
‘The one guy I can remember who wouldn’t head the ball was my older brother Ian. He always said it would hurt your brain. It was a bone of contention between him and my dad. He’s a consultant neurologist now. (This is not a joke. Dr Ian Sutton specialises in multiple sclerosis and neuro-immunology at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney.)
‘I headed thousands of balls. My kids are worried about what will happen to me, but I’m more worried about what happens to them, or future generations. I threw balls up for my sons when they were younger, of course I did. Would I do it now? Absolutely not.
‘I sometimes wonder if today’s knowledge would have changed my attitude as a young man. It’s hard to answer. You want to impress the coach. Show willing.
‘But if he was to ask me to go out with the keeper and practise 50, 60, 80 headers, ball kicked from the hand, knowing what I know now, I’d say: I’ll do some, but not that many.
Sutton (right) admits he would have change his playing style if he knew the dangers of heading
‘I wouldn’t change my career, but I’d think more about the numbers. If I’d been informed I would have been different. My family would have encouraged me to be different, too.
‘I think about the life my mum and dad wanted for us as children, all the fruit and vegetables. It was about health. So I’m sure my dad, if he’d known, wouldn’t have encouraged us to head balls. With what we know now, what parent encourages their child to smoke?’
It came as a jolt, the article Josephine wrote about her husband. The details, the admission she contemplated a joint suicide. Her son knows some intimacies that have remained private, too.
Dementia is a lot more than forgetting your car keys. It never gets better. It is not a fight, or an opponent the victim can beat.
Mike Sutton got the joint-top mark in his teaching qualification, a double first, and was aggrieved that the other high-flyer, whose surname also began with S but had O as its second letter, was listed first. And he had as much chance of beating Alzheimer’s as he did of overturning the modern English alphabet.
Sutton also discussed the impact of his father Mike’s dementia on his family life
‘What she wrote about suicide, I wasn’t aware of that, but I can understand it,’ Sutton says. ‘He’s had this for the best part of a decade, and that’s a long time. It’s been difficult for her. She used to write his name, their address and her phone number and pin it on his shirt in case he got out.
‘People would pick him up in the street. He’d wander into a coffee shop and just stand there. And they’d find the note, and call. That’s her nightmare. I can imagine her, locking doors all the time, worried in case he gets out or she isn’t by his side.
‘She says if he could communicate he’d ask to be put down. He wouldn’t want this life. If he was a dog you’d put him out of his misery.’
And, pitifully, for those left with an empty shell where a great person used to be, there is nothing that can be done.
Yet that doesn’t mean football can continue doing nothing.