Former England captain Dave Watson has a neurodegenerative disease which his wife Penny believes was most likely brought on by head injuries and repeated heading of the ball.
Watson, 73, won 65 caps and helped Sunderland win the 1973 FA Cup before guiding Manchester City to League Cup success three years later.
“Dave has good and bad days,” she said.
“He tries to continue to enjoy a normal life, however almost every day we are confronted with a new challenge.”
Penny Watson said her husband’s consultant thought that it was “in all probability chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)” – the disease determined as the cause of former West Brom striker Jeff Astle’s death in 2002.
“If you come across him at a match or elsewhere, please don’t be afraid to interact with him,” she added – the former defender is set to be inducted into Sunderland’s Hall of Fame next month.
“Please be considerate if he is having a bad day and struggling. This disease plays tricks on his memory, so he may not be able to remember accurately, and he may find signing autographs a challenge.
“The last thing Dave wants is to be treated with pity. He has always been a fighter, as those of you who watched him play know, but this is one battle Dave cannot win.”
Watson played for Sunderland, Manchester City, Werder Bremen, Southampton and Stoke during his time as an England player.
Astle family campaign results in research
Following Astle’s death, his family pushed for research into a possible link between heading footballs and dementia.
In 2014, a coroner ruled that the former England forward was killed by CTE – a progressive degeneration of the the brain caused by repeated head trauma – and that it had been caused by heading footballs.
Neurosurgeon Dr Willie Stewart added the condition was frequently mistaken for dementia, as happened to Astle when he was incorrectly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
In October, a study commissioned by the Football Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association found that former footballers are approximately three and a half times more likely to die from neurodegenerative disease than the general population.
Football’s governing bodies are now set to introduce new guidelines in youth football. The English FA suggests a restriction in the amount of heading by under-18 players in training, while the Scottish FA is set to ban under-12s heading the ball during training.