It did not take long in the company of Dave, a Chesterfield taxi driver, to fully appreciate that we were visiting local royalty. “What brings you here then? Ernie Moss!? Wow. Our greatest player. Record goalscorer. Played 850 professional games. A hero.” Such adulation also remains evident whenever Moss attends a home game. “It takes 15 minutes to get from the car into the ground with people wanting pictures and autographs,” says Sarah, the youngest of his two daughters.
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Now 69, Moss has barely aged outwardly since he retired in 1992 and remains instantly recognisable to any self-respecting Spireite. Appearances, though, could hardly be more deceptive. For while there is a big friendly smile and shake of the hand, Moss does not speak. He can no longer articulate more than the very occasional word, which is usually “superb”. He refuses to leave his house unless it is to watch Chesterfield and he spends every day completing – with unerring accuracy – copious numbers of Sudoku puzzles. Christmas provided a change of rhythm only in that there was a large pile of new books.
And yet, while one area of his brain clearly still functions efficiently, others have shut down. He cannot follow a conversation and needs full-time care to be reminded to complete the most routine task, such as eating or cleaning his teeth. He is also one of many former footballers suffering from a degenerative brain condition. Moss has had Pick’s Disease, which is a rare form of dementia, since his late fifties and has already outlived the usual expectancy for what is an irreversible condition. He was a renowned header of the ball and his family are convinced that football is the cause of a devastating condition that, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Motor Neurone disease, can be caused by repeated blows to the head. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is the umbrella term for those brain conditions that have long been associated with boxers but are also now shockingly evident among other sportsmen.
Football is still yet to facilitate promised research but one medical expert has said that the anecdotal evidence is “frightening”. Of the surviving eight outfield members of the 1966 World Cup team, half are now suffering with Alzheimer’s or some form of memory loss. “It seems almost to be of epidemic proportion,” John Stiles, the son of Nobby and himself a former professional.
Dr Willie Stewart, the neuropathologist who diagnosed CTE in both Jeff Astle and Frank Kopel, said that wider answers could have been provided within two years of the 2002 Astle inquest. “And yet football puts its head in the sand and refuses either to help or properly look into this,” says Nikki, Ernie’s eldest daughter. The family have followed football’s sexual abuse scandal and, as a new generation despairs at past inertia, they see a parallel. “The football community is fantastic but the authorities look away when something difficult happens,” says Nikki. “Of course they are two very different issues but you have to wonder if protecting the product of the game has been more important than protecting people. Football is letting down our kids, our dads, our ex-professionals and our current players. I believe people will look back one day and wonder how we have been so slow to react. The link is obvious and, sadly, there is no evidence to assume that current players will be unaffected.”
In a series of stories and interviews, we revealed how the football industry was being accused by some medical experts of acting like the notorious tobacco companies of the 1960s for their failure to investigate or acknowledge potential health risks.
The Professional Footballers’ Association and the Football Association responded by promising to examine what research could be done both collaboratively and with other sports. A meeting was then held between Dawn Astle and Charlotte Cowie, the FA’s head of performance medicine. Astle was also invited onto the FA’s expert panel on head injuries. PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor said that he would be “disappointed” if research has not started by the end of year but, as yet, no details of any PFA or FA-funded project have emerged. The FA also promised to send research questions to Fifa. The situation has also been compared to the National Football League in America where, following years of campaigning, a compensation plan totalling $1 billion was agreed for former players in 2015. The story became the subject of a Hollywood film.
With Ernie telling doctors that he was fine, there were numerous visits before his diagnosis. Pick’s Disease impacts on the front part of the brain and, while Ernie’s mood is again now generally happy with medication, continual decline is inevitable. He cannot remember when and what he has eaten and so, given the chance, he would devour entire packets of sweets, chocolate or his favourite fish and chips without stopping. Car-keys must be hidden for his own safety and yet there are those small parts of his thinking – and routine – that remain intact.
While we are all chatting over a cup of tea, he suddenly breaks off from Sudoku to scan the newspaper and point out that there is football on television that evening. He also particularly now enjoys cartoons. His love for the game has returned and, when he watches Chesterfield, he will motion to head the ball whenever it is in the air. Amazingly, when the family took him to a recent away game at Port Vale and got stuck in traffic, he began pointing to a back-street short-cut to the ground. Moss left Port Vale in 1983.
After a lifetime signing autographs and having his picture taken, he also still happily grants all requests and it is extraordinary to watch him pose with all the natural swagger of a film star for the Telegraph’s photographer. And yet, as the family readily acknowledge, he does not comprehend what is happening around him. Christmas Day was happy for Ernie because he was surrounded by loved ones, good food and that new stack of Sudoku books; but he had no idea what the date was.
When Chesterfield put on ‘Ernie Moss Day’ in their match last year against Port Vale, he had to be virtually pushed out onto the pitch to receive the rapturous appreciation of fans rather than have his usual half-time cup of tea. “He was laughing and smiling but he didn’t grasp that it was for him and it is heart-breaking when fans approach him and he is unable to respond,” says Nikki.
Familiarity is also everything to the extent that Nikki and her husband Stu got married at Chesterfield’s Proact Stadium as it is the one venue outside the house in which he feels comfortable. They want now to be open about his condition for two reasons. First and foremost, they feel responsibility to past, present and future generations of players to ensure action over the “silent scandal” of failed dementia research into former footballers. There is also a desire to let people know locally so that they understand when Ernie is unable to engage as they might expect.
A mixture of laughter, tears and enormous doses of love are what currently sustain Jenny, Nikki and Sarah but there is also fear at what the future might hold. The physical and emotional toll of caring for Ernie is huge and, while meeting this incredibly tight-knit family is both uplifting and inspiring, they also live in solemn resignation at how this tragic journey will end.
“There is no shadow of a doubt that he will end up in care and my biggest worry is that we have got to fund it,” says Jenny, who gave up her job at Morrisons to care full-time for Ernie. “There is no pension from football; he gets nothing.” They then explain how they were subjected to a process that seemed almost to border on cruelty in requiring Ernie to be assessed in a series of unfamiliar environments just to receive a most basic benefit. Ernie and Jenny once dreamed of moving to France when they sold the local ‘Moss and Miller’ sports shop that they ran with former England cricketer Geoff Miller but the daughters are now scared that their mum will soon have to sell what has been the family home since 1979. “We don’t want compensation; we just want to know our dad and footballers like him will be looked after,” says Nikki. “We are so proud of him. He is forever our hero as well.”