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Jimmy Conway, the dementia epidemic and how football failed an entire generation of players

The former Republic of Ireland international spent the final ten years of his life battling the insidious disease.

Image: Barratts

ON TUESDAY AFTERNOON, St Mary’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Portland will be full to capacity.

They will come from all over Oregon and beyond to say a final farewell to Jimmy Conway, the blue-eyed boy from Cabra, who gave them so much. 

Fittingly, the church lies in the shadow of Providence Park, the long-time home of football in the city and where Jimmy first arrived as a Timbers player in 1978 after an excellent career in England, most notably with Fulham and briefly Manchester City.

The move was initially looked upon as an adventure, a last hurrah for a midfielder in his early thirties. At City, his time on the pitch had diminished and he desperately wanted to keep playing. The NASL, then at its peak, was an opportunity too good to resist: George Best, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto.  

But Jimmy got more than he bargained for. With wife Noeleen by his side and their three children, they built a home in the pacific northwest. After retiring from playing, Conway eased into an exemplary and deeply influential coaching career. At a collegiate level, he was involved at Pacific University and Oregon State while he was director of the Oregon Youth Soccer Association for almost thirty years. Up until 2009, if you’d been involved in the region’s football community at any point in the previous three decades, you knew Jimmy Conway and he knew you.     

And then that changed. 

His battle with early-onset dementia has been a harrowing, traumatic and scarring experience for the entire Conway family. In 2017, I spoke to Noeleen and it remains – easily – the most difficult interview I’ve ever conducted.

Afterwards I felt wretched. How, I wondered, must it feel to watch a loved one – your partner for half a century – turn from a quiet, mild-mannered, affectionate personality to a violent, intimidating presence whose severe mood swings lead to medical intervention? How must it feel to see that same loved one strapped to a gurney and pumped full of drugs? Or being admitted to the psychiatric ward? Or interrogated by police for throwing a chair at another patient? How must it feel to have to battle with insurance companies over healthcare coverage? And how must it feel to deal with all of it while watching that same loved one disintegrate before your very eyes?

Because, as Noeleen explained to me, there is no road map for dementia. When we spoke, she didn’t know how much longer it would go on for. Five years? Ten years? The uncertainty, the sleepless nights, the stress. It was relentless.

“I just don’t want anybody else to suffer this way,” she said. 

By that stage, Jimmy wasn’t able to speak anymore. He couldn’t feed himself. He needed help standing up, sitting down. But, at Oregon State Hospital, where he spent the last seven years of his life, he found some kind of serenity.          

Inevitably, there has been an outpouring of support since Jimmy passed away on Valentine’s Day. At Craven Cottage, his old stomping ground, there was an emotional and heartfelt minute’s applause before the Championship clash against Barnsley last weekend. And it was hard not to get a lump in the throat when the crowd began to sing. 

“We’ve got  Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy…
Jimmy Conway on the wing, on the wing…”

In Portland, prior to the Timbers’ pre-season game with Vancouver Whitecaps, a minute’s silence was impeccably kept. One tricolour was proudly on display in the crowd, Jimmy’s name stencilled across it. While another, alongside a wreath, was wrapped around the team’s ceremonial log that’s present for every home game.

All lovely touches. And meaningful in their own way.  

But it’s the silence from others – mainly football’s governing bodies – that’s particularly deafening.

A litany of players who were – just like Jimmy – at their peak during the ’60s and ’70s have been diagnosed with dementia or related illnesses. For a long time, the link was downplayed. And then it became too difficult to ignore anymore. 

The same day that Jimmy died at 73, former England captain Dave Watson was the latest ex-player to reveal he was suffering with a ‘neurodegenerative disease’. He’s also 73 and his battle has been on-going for some time. His consultant believes the cause “in all probability” was Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE, a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated head trauma.

It wasn’t just the heavy footballs. It was the concussions that went undetected or ignored. The iron men. The tough guys. There was no alternative but to roll the sleeves up and get on with it. 

soccer-home-international-championship-england-v-scotland Former England captain Dave Watson pictured playing for his country in 1981. Source: Peter Robinson

In 2014, two years after Jeff Astle – the former West Brom striker – died at just 59, his brain was studied and CTE was discovered. He had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and the coroner ruled the cause of his death as ‘industrial disease’, that his job as a footballer had killed him. 

Since then, the bodies have piled up. Celtic icon Billy McNeill, 1966 World Cup winner Martin Peters and his England team-mate Ray Wilson. Others have persevered in silence only for concerned family members to step forward and shine a light on their strife. Nobby Stiles first started displaying symptoms when he was 60. That means he’s inching towards having spent twenty years – a quarter of his life – suffering with dementia.

“It seems almost to be of epidemic proportion,” said his son, John. 

Others going through something similar include Stan Bowles and Jimmy Calderwood while earlier this month, Tony Parkes – the former Blackburn Rovers’ player and coach, revealed in a touching video alongside his daughter Natalie, that he’s also been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

These are the cases we know about.    

Last October, the results of the PFA and Football Association-funded study by the University of Glasgow’s Brain Injury Group found that ex-pro footballers were three and a half times more likely to develop dementia while there was a five-fold increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s.

The response from both the PFA and FA was startling. Their focus was on the future and whether the results would ensure heading being eradicated from the game. 

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“Research must continue to answer more specific questions about what needs to be done to identify and reduce risk factors,” said Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the PFA.

Meanwhile, Greg Clarke, the FA chairman, had the following to say. 

“The whole game must recognise that this is only the start of our understanding and there are many questions that still need to be answered. It is important that the global football family now unites to find the answers and provide a greater understanding of this complex issue. The FA is committed to doing all it can to make that happen.”

The same PR firm must have helped with both statements.

The PFA – deeply criticised for how slow they were in responding to the multitude of ex-pro cases – is championing more research, after this study – which carried staggering and definitive results – took two years to come to fruition.

Over at the Football Association, they have essentially shrugged their shoulders. ‘Many questions still need to be answered’, they say. Like what? But it seems they’ve now done their part. It’s over to the ‘global football family’ to figure out next steps. Why? All of the former players at the centre of this story played in the Football League. They paid money into a union that should have protected their interests and failed.

The FA have committed to a new research task-force while a £1 million study at the University of East Anglia will test former players for early signs of dementia. So inevitably, after a lengthy period of inaction, there’s been a swing in the opposite direction. However, in amongst all of the grandiose statements and studies, there’s been a number of things missing.     

What about those already impacted? And what about accountability?

jeff-astle Former West Brom striker Jeff Astle, whose death at the age of 59 was ruled as 'industrial disease' by the coroner. Source: PA

The PFA have pointed to their benevolent fund – which covers a wide gamut – as a way for families to seek some degree of compensation. In total, £563,261 was spent in 2018 on helping players and ex-players in poverty, dealing with illness or struggling with mental problems, including those with dementia or similar degenerative brain disease. For comparison purposes, Gordon Taylor – the organisation’s chief since 1981 – earned over £2m.       

When Rod Taylor, the former Bournemouth, Portsmouth and Gillingham player, died in 2018, CTE was found in his brain too, just like Jeff Astle. Last year, following the release of the results from the University of Glasgow study, his daughter Rachel spoke eloquently.

“The absolute immediate thing to come out is an urgent review of all the players living with dementia and then a full and comprehensive care plan,” she said.

“Somebody needs to apologise and mean it.”

When I saw the news of Jimmy’s death, I thought of Noeleen and something she said to me in an email.

“Jimmy had a wonderful career in football,” she wrote.

“But he has also had a career in dementia, almost ten years now. I think that’s a great title for a book, don’t you?”

I remember laughing at that line and wondering how she still had a sense of humour after everything she’d been dragged through. 

Nothing will bring Jimmy back. Perhaps most importantly, even if he had known the risks involved and the potential repercussions, he’d still have played the game he loved. But football cost him ten years of his life and led to a premature death. And there’s the collateral damage too: the impact on his family.   

Throughout the last decade, there’s just been isolation for Noeleen. Her resilience, as well as the support of her kids and the Portland football community, kept her from falling down.  

She deserves answers now. She deserves an apology. She deserves closure.

She’s waited long enough.    

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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