Sunderland boss Tony Mowbray to help raise awareness of long-term dementia-related and brain injuries in football

Sunderland manager Tony Mowbray will kick off a non-heading football game on Sunday to raise awareness of long-term dementia-related and brain injuries in the sport.

Sunderland boss Tony Mowbray to help raise awareness of long-term dementia-related and brain injuries in football.
Sunderland boss Tony Mowbray to help raise awareness of long-term dementia-related and brain injuries in football.

The former Middlesbrough defender and one-time partner Gary Pallister are among the North East legends pledging their support to the Head for Change game at Spennymoor FC this weekend, the second non-heading game arranged by the charity and medical experts.

The match has been dubbed the ‘Billion Pound Game’ by organisers to symbolise the estimated cost of sports-related dementia care over the next 30 years in the UK.

Before kick-off they will hold a parade with 66 silhouettes of former footballers - Football’s Unforgettables - including England World Cup winning heroes Jack Charlton and Nobby Stiles who suffered from brain-related injuries in their later life.

The game will be played between teams made up of ex-pros and amateur players representing Head For Change and the Solan Connor Fawcett Family Cancer Trust and Kevin Phillips, Robbie Stockdale, Curtis Fleming, Colin Cooper, Tommy Butler, Darren Holloway, Gavin McCann and Tony McMahon have all been invited.

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The former footballers will also be joined by three ex-rugby players; former Leeds Rhinos player Stevie Ward, who was forced to retire early due to a concussion-related injury, as well as ex-Saracens full-back Dan Scarborough and former Wales international Alix Popham who have both been diagnosed with early onset dementia. Popham has filed legal claims against rugby authorities for injuries including an estimated 100,000 sub-concussions in his 14-year career.

The match, which kicks off at 3pm at Brewery Field on Sunday, will also feature an appearance from one of the world’s leading experts on the subject, Doctor Willie Stewart, who featured in a 2017 BBC documentary with former England captain Alan Shearer, which first highlighted the long-term dangers of heading the ball.

Dr Stewart, who will play in goal for the Head For Change team, has published groundbreaking research which showed footballers are five times more likely to suffer from dementia than the general public. He will also be holding a pre-match seminar for players and spectators at the ground.

Head For Change was set up by the wife of former Middlesbrough defender Bill Gates who is now living with dementia and returned from the Cayman Islands to live in the UK after he was diagnosed.

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Long-time family friend Mowbray said: “I’m looking forward to attending the event on Sunday to raise awareness of the dangers of heading in football.

“Although heading is a huge part of the game, it’s important people are aware of the impact it can have in later life. It’s great to see the work that Judith and Head for Change are continuing to do, and I’m sure it will be an enjoyable spectacle.”

Dr Gates, whose husband Bill Gates played for Middlesbrough and Spennymoor and is now living with dementia, has spoken about the progress being made on the agenda since last year’s match, which was the first no-heading game. Last year heading was allowed in the penalty areas in the first-half and banned completely in the second.

She said: “The conversations we have had with the government and the Football Association have been encouraging over the last year.

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“There is much more awareness of this growing issue both within the game and the general public and we received phenomenal coverage of last year’s match.

“We are now involved in at least one documentary on the subject, and I am working with medical authorities to discuss solutions to a problem that we estimate will cost one billion pounds in treatment over the next three decades.

“Head For Change is in contact with more than 100 former professional sportspeople who have been diagnosed with dementia and we will be demonstrating the scale of the problem with a special parade before kick-off.

“I would like to thank those who are supporting us for the match this year, including Spennymoor Town FC and their owner Brad Groves, who actually used to be an employee of Bill. Equally, Mark Solan from Solan Connor Fawcett Family Cancer Trust, who is crucial in bringing our former professional footballers to be a part of the day and the conversation.

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“The three trustees of Head for Change are living with a family member diagnosed with sports related dementia. We know at first hand the chaos caused by this progressive and unremitting disease.

“We know how it destroys people and disrupts families. It is not simply memory loss and absent mindedness. Instead it can manifest itself in suicidal ideation, aggression, torment, violence and obsessive behaviours, leading to dementia, physical deterioration, and total loss of self and mind. It is a devastating and cruel disease.

“Head for Change are part of the solution. We advise and support affected families. We create educational programmes for players and coaches of all ages. We collaborate with researchers from around the world. Our advocacy is evidence based. We seek always to prevent the players of today from becoming the victims of tomorrow.

“We owe a duty of care to all players, including players of the future.”

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The first no-heading football match was held at Spennymoor in September 2021 and this year will feature a new set of rules whereby no heading of a ball is allowed from any set pieces.

The Solan cancer trust is a joint beneficiary of the proceeds on the day and has held charity matches at Spennymoor for a decade, with proceeds being used to support families in County Durham living with cancer.