When a close friend and footballing mentor began to lose his battle with Alzheimer’s earlier this year, it was the inability to remember players’ names he’d watched week in week out which hammered home the cold indifference of this merciless disease. This was a man known for endlessly reminiscing about the beautiful game – its intricacies, its heroes, its history – reduced to nervously attempting to recall something as basic as the offside rule.
With the death of Martin Peters four days before Christmas, England have now lost five players from their World Cup-winning squad. Three of these champions, including the late Peters, have had their memories of ’66 stolen from them by Alzheimer’s. It goes without saying that as long as there is a star above the England crest, the nation will remember; but it remains grimly predictable that we will continue to hear about icons of our game falling victim to the affliction in years to come.
Researchers have drawn what seems like an incontrovertible link between ex-professional footballers and susceptibility to dementia. The subject will have been brought to many people’s attention by Alan Shearer’s 2017 documentary, Dementia, Football and Me, which explored the potential dangers of repeated head contact with the ball, especially the heavy old brown leather incarnation so synonymous with England’s finest day. The findings in this BBC documentary were reinforced by a study conducted by the University of Glasgow earlier this year which concluded that retired footballers were more than three times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease than the wider population.
Martin Peters leaves behind children and grandchildren who feel this loss infinitely more deeply than the footballing public. It is a difficult truth that his illness may well have been brought about by playing the game he loved. His place in history is secured but he could have lived further into it had football reached these conclusions sooner.
Famously, Peters scored to make it 2-1 to England against West Germany in the World Cup Final 53 years ago. Looking past the final score on that epoch-making day, the ex-West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur midfielder’s contribution to the team throughout the tournament was hugely significant. England’s Alf Ramsey described him as a footballer “ten years ahead of his time”, his dynamism and versatility making him an effective blueprint for the modern midfielder. An athlete with the attacking subtlety of a scimitar and the defensive destruction of a battleaxe, he fell into Ramsey’s innovative ‘wingless wonders’ system with tetromino-like precision. Quite simply, English football history might look radically different had there been no Martin Peters.
Slowly, we are losing those who brought about England’s finest hour. Though footballers’ working conditions are vastly different to those experienced by Peters in the 60s and 70s, his death should prompt those in power to redouble their research into football’s potentially harmful health consequences – after all, life, unlike the game, is markedly transient.