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Dementia

‘We want to be part of the solution – for Bill and future generations’

Dr Judith Gates speaks to NR Times about this weekend’s football match organised by Head for Change, which will be the first ever to involve no heading of the ball

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The first football match which involves no heading of the ball will help raise awareness and stimulate conversation about the impact of head injury in sport, its organisers have said. 

The 11-a-side match, involving 25 former professional footballers, has been hailed as an experiment as researchers try to discover whether the game can function without heading, in light of ever-growing research which links football to neurodegenerative disease.

It is organised by Head for Change, the organisation helping to drive forward calls for changes to player safety, and will only allow headers in the penalty box for the first half and then restrict all heading during the second half. 

It will be held at Spennymoor Town Football Club, in County Durham, on Sunday at 3pm. 

The event forms part of the “legacy” for former Spennymoor Town and Middlesbrough defender Bill Gates, who has sports-related dementia, and whose wife Dr Judith Gates is co-founder and chair of Head for Change. 

Dr Judith Gates

“When Bill received his diagnosis in 2017, we made two promises to him,” Dr Gates tells NR Times. 

“One was to optimise his life and do all we could to make his life as good as we could as a dad, grandad and great grandad, and the second was for his legacy, to do everything we could to be part of the solution for future generations of footballers and their families not to have to face this.

“The purpose of this match is to raise awareness of the dangers of heading the ball and to provide alternative discussion with purpose. It’s an experiment to see what the game will look like. 

“To be clear, Head for Change is not suggesting heading should be banned, that is a decision for football’s governing authorities, not for us. 

“But we want people to realise the impact. Bill was a Titan to me in his 20s, fit and indestructible, so if this disease can do this to him, it can happen to anyone.”

The match has attracted widespread media attention and comes after an array of stark academic findings, including the research from Professor Willie Stewart that footballers are up to five times more likely to suffer from dementia than the general population. 

“Part of why I co-founded Head for Change was to be part of the solution,” says Dr Gates. 

“We’re extremely aware that there is a lot of bashing going on and everyone is saying it’s someone else’s fault, but lessons must be learnt from the past. 

“For too long we have been assured that our brain was safe in our skull, but we are increasingly understanding how the brain works and how it can be damaged through contact sports. Education will continue to play a very important role in what happens going forward.”

The match itself – which will also be raising money for The Solan Connor Fawcett Cancer Trust – will be held at Spennymoor Town’s stadium, The Brewery Field. 

The town is where Dr Gates grew up and met her husband, and in a quirk of fate, Spennymoor Town’s chief executive Brad Groves used to work for Bill as a warehouseman when Bill owned a chain of sports stores. 

The club, alongside those playing in the match, have been hugely supportive of their ambitions, says Dr Gates. 

“We’ve been amazed at the extent to which they have stepped up, Spennymoor have been phenomenal. Brad has been so kind in offering whatever he can do to help. We are hugely appreciative,” she says. 

“The players taking part are excited to be part of it, they may not be able to use one of their many footballing skills but they can use the rest of them. 

“Spennymoor is a small town with a big heart and we are so pleased to be able to hold this match, and particularly here, at Bill’s first club.”

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