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'I spoke to him: 'If football has done this to you Dad, I promise you I’ll make sure the whole world knows''

In an extract from State of Play, Dawn Astle recalls her father Jeff’s tragic battle with dementia.

Tributes to the late Jeff Astle left on the gates at The Hawthorns.
Tributes to the late Jeff Astle left on the gates at The Hawthorns.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from State of Play: Under the Skin of the Modern Game by Michael Calvin.

A daughter’s love lingers and intensifies, until it is preserved like a flower pressed between the pages of a favourite book.

A single tear falls from Dawn Astle’s left eye, and is brushed away with the back of her hand. An inherited version of her father’s smile — moist, wide and engaging — accompanies the refusal of an invitation to pause before returning to the terrible events of Saturday, 18 January 2002.

It was her 34th birthday, a birth date she shared with her maternal grandfather, a deeply private man who had buried his wife the previous day. He didn’t like fuss, but Dawn and her mother Laraine had organised a family dinner so that he was surrounded by love. The house, which adjoined a field lined with disintegrating remnants of diseased elm trees, hummed with four generations of the Astle clan.

‘I’d set the table, and at the time Dad was really poorly. He had to have everything cut up really small for him. We had to watch him because he’d keep putting stuff in his mouth before he’d swallowed the last lot and he’d be like a bloody hamster. I can see him now. I can’t say he walked in… he sort of walked with a stoop. He just looked like a really, really old, old man.

‘I was in the kitchen and he sat at the dining table. Someone said to him, “Don’t start yet Jeff, we’re not ready”.

I said, “Oh he’s fine”. Everyone was watching him. And he was ever so careful, just doing little bits of meat. He started to cough and I had to lean back a little bit to check there was someone with him. Mum was there, with a few other adults, but he just kept coughing.

‘Someone said, “Let’s stand him up”. Of course you had to help him up, and you could tell this coughing was getting worse. Somebody said, “Let’s take him outside”. They opened the two doors, and we were on that little bit of a path out the front. It’s private there, so there was nobody about to see him. He was heaving, and we got the kids away, took them upstairs.

‘People were saying, “Spit it out Jeff, whatever you’ve got in your mouth, spit it out”. He gritted his teeth together, you could see it, he just wouldn’t. His brain couldn’t send the signal for him to throw up. My mum was trying to open his mouth. Alastair, my partner, shouted “watch your fingers” because he would have bitten her bloody fingers off. And then his legs went from under him.

‘I shouted, “Go and fetch some cushions, bring my quilt, bring anything” because it was cold. I rang the ambulance service and was ratty with them because I just wanted help, immediately.

‘I don’t mention this a lot but years and years ago, in my grandma and grandad’s house, I earwigged on a conversation my grandma was having with one of the neighbours, about this death rattle. I always remembered it but didn’t really know what it was.

‘And then I heard something… Dad had stopped heaving and coughing. He just lay there. His eyes were open, his teeth were still gritted together, and me and Alastair started to do CPR on him. I was ex-police and had been trained, but I just couldn’t remember what to do. Alastair was very calm — do this, do that — and as I was doing it, I was going, “Please Dad, please Dad”.

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Honest to God, it felt like hours and hours before the paramedics arrived.’

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Dawn retreated to the side of the house, retrieved an emergency supply of cigarettes she had hidden on top of the refrigerator, and could barely bring herself to watch the tragic tableau that unfolded beneath a harsh security light. The paramedics, working in what is now a rose garden, used a defibrillator for another eternity.

‘I was squinting because I didn’t want to look, but knew I had to. I’m not particularly religious but I was thinking, “Please God, don’t let him die”. And then they took him in the ambulance. Mum and my sister Claire followed it. Everyone was in a state of shock and I collapsed at one point. Then suddenly the phone rang and my eldest sister Dorice answered it.

‘I remember it like it was yesterday. She went, “Hello. Is he? All right. Bye.” Put the phone down. I was sat by the table. I think the kids were still upstairs. And she just turned around and said, “My…”. That was it.

I grabbed the tablecloth, for some mad reason, and pulled it, like a bloody magician does, and the food went bloody everywhere.

‘I jumped straight in the car. I said to Alastair, “I don’t care whether you get stopped. Get me there now. Just go as fast as you can.” When I walked into the hospital all I wanted to do was to see my dad. They took me through to this room and there was nobody in there apart from him. I didn’t know what he was going to look like.

‘A nurse came by, asked me if I was OK, and pulled back the curtain that surrounded him. He was sitting slightly upright, with his mouth slightly open. I noticed the gold signet ring he used to wear was the wrong way round, so I turned it so that it was proper. When I saw him later I asked everyone to leave us, and spoke to him: “If football has done this to you Dad, I promise you I’ll make sure the whole world knows, and I’ll get justice for you.”’

State of Play: Under the Skin of the Modern Game by Michael Calvin is published by Century. More info here.

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