Alan Hubbard

How are the mighty fallen? One by one England’s football heroes of 1966 are leaving us, the latest being Martin Peters, who died last week after suffering from Alzheimer’s for several years - a condition which, worryingly, has claimed the lives or affected virtually half that wondrous team.

This surely cannot be a coincidence and must add to the growing evidence that heading the ball is a root root cause of the growing number of dementia victims in football.

Peters is the fifth member of a team that has been beset by illness and tragedy to pass away, and this the fourth from a form of dementia.

Left-back Ray Wilson passed away last year, also from Alzheimer’s; Gordon Banks, England’s greatest ever goalkeeper, died of kidney cancer aged 79 in February of this year after losing an eye in a road crash in 1972.

The irrepressible Alan Ball was 61 when in 2007 he died of a heart attack while fighting a small blaze in his garden.

Bobby Moore, the only England captain ever to lift the trophy, tragically, died of liver cancer at just 51 in February 1993. And manager Sir Alf Ramsey, also an Alzheimer’s victim, passed away aged 79 in 1999. Both his assistants, trainers Harold Shepherdson and Les Cocker, also are no longer with us,

The surviving members of the team are the once irrepressible Nobby Stiles, who at 77 has been affected by Alzheimer’s for a long time, centre-half Jack Charlton, 84, who admits he is "losing his memory" to a form of of dementia, his brother Sir Bobby Charlton, who is 82, and fellow knight Sir Geoff Hurst, who is 78, and inside forward Roger Hunt, who turned 81 earlier this year. 

Also still with us is right-back George Cohen, 80 last month and who is stricken with osteoarthritis and has to walk with the aid of a frame.

Martin Peters is the fifth member of England's 1966 World Cup-winning team to die ©Getty Images
Martin Peters is the fifth member of England's 1966 World Cup-winning team to die ©Getty Images

Peters wore the number 11 shirt but he was no orthodox, old-fashioned outside left. When, after a goalless soulless draw with Uruguay in the opening round of the competition Ramsey revolutionised football tactics by introducing his "wingless wonders" formation, Peters was the lynchpin.

He was here, there, almost everywhere, yet if you remember it was he who scored the other goal alongside Hurst’s famous hat-trick for the 4-2 victory over West Germany in extra-time in the final.

Moore, Hurst and Peters - West Ham United's "Holy Trinity" - were revered throughout world football, coming from a team which, manager Ron Greenwood always insisted played with elegance and sophistry. Peters made 364 appearances for the Hammers before spells at Tottenham Hotspur, Norwich City and Sheffield United, and acquired 67 England caps in days when they were not so cheaply attained.

"Martin was one of the all-time great players and a close friend and colleague in excess of 50 years," said Hurst. 

Peters' ability to get into scoring positions apparently from nowhere earned him the nickname "the ghost". His crossing, heading and passing with both feet gave him the reputation as a complete, almost unique player, who was "10 ahead of his time" according to Ramsey.

Quiet and unobtrusive, always a gentleman. He seemed to represent all that was good in the game in those days, as of course did Bobby Moore. So immaculate in his play and in person, he was quite shamefully treated by the denizens of the Football Association (FA), and by the Establishment which never awarded him the knighthood that should have been his by right judged by the many others in sport who have received that accolade.

Moore could have been made an ambassador for the game or national coach for young players, but his credentials were ignored and he ended his days as a radio pundit.

As I have written before, I recall visiting him during the 1980s when he was the manager of semi-professional side Oxford City in the Isthmian League. I found him in his "office", a Portacabin in the car park. As I entered, I could not help saying: "Hello Bob - what the hell is the England captain doing in a place like this?" He  simply shrugged and said: "Well it’s a job I suppose."

Moore’s bonus for lifting the trophy was £1,000 ($1,300/€1,200), the same as his team-mates and those in the rest of the squad. Even in those days it was not exactly generous. The super-richly rewarded players of today might well spend that on a few rounds of drinks in a London nightclub. 

Heading the ball is an important part of the game but is increasingly coming under scrutiny for health reasons ©Getty Images
Heading the ball is an important part of the game but is increasingly coming under scrutiny for health reasons ©Getty Images

Heading the ball was was an essential part of the game, as indeed it is today. But the leather ball was much heavier then and, when covered in mud during the winter, whether in parks or in professional stadiums, the sudden effect could not fail to cause the occasional headache - or worse.

In October, the Premier League wrote to all 20 clubs to notify them it is considering what action needs to be taken following the publication of a landmark report confirming the link between dementia and football. There is a growing demand for a ban on heading for children. So far it has been resisted but, if agreed, it would have to be implemented at Premier League academies.

Bournemouth are one club who have already taken the matter into their own hands and stopped heading for the youngest players in their academy, while the Scottish Football Association is considering reducing heading in football, although there is a debate over which age-group should be covered, including whether it should go up to the under-18s. There is a sense that the ban could quickly be implemented for children at the age of 12.

The study has followed a campaign for research into the prevalence of dementia and other serious neurological diseases among players. It found there was a five-fold increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s, a four-fold increase in Motor Neurone Disease and a two-fold increase in Parkinson‘s.

The English FA has set up a task force which includes Dawn Astle, the daughter of former England striker Jeff Astle, who died of Alzheimer’s in 2002. 

So far, calls for a total ban on heading have been firmly resisted by both FIFA and the FA but as more high–profile stars, like Martin Peters and the Class of '66 are fatally affected by the condition, it would not surprise me if heading the ball was not made an offence like handling the ball within the next 20 years.