MATT BARLOW: Rotherham's memory club is a ray of sunshine

MATT BARLOW: Rotherham’s memory club is a ray of sunshine for ex-players with dementia like Dave Watson… the group is a shining example of why it’s not difficult for football’s authorities to help

  • Rotherham have set up a memory club to support ex-players who have dementia 
  • It’s a great example of why it’s not difficult for authorities to help those in need
  • WATCH: ‘It’s All Kicking Off’ – Episode 1 – Mail Sport’s brand new football show 

Dave Watson’s career at Rotherham United is not well known. His fame came as a fearless centre half, winning the FA Cup with Sunderland and the League Cup with Manchester City, and collecting 65 England caps in eight years.

At Rotherham, though, they rate him as perhaps their finest ever player. They signed him for next to nothing from Notts County in 1967, a time when he still featured occasionally as a striker, sold him three years later for £100,000 and have re-embraced him during his years of illness.

Watson is 76, his dementia is quite advanced, and he is a regular at the Millers Memory Club, a monthly gathering for ex-players devised and hosted by John Breckin, a club legend and honorary life president.

The idea hatched from the Covid pandemic, when Breckin received a call from the wife of Trevor Womble, another former team-mate with dementia, asking for help. Womble was struggling with the isolation so they started with an old-boys’ get-together on Zoom and it evolved from there.

Now ex-players meet monthly at Rotherham’s New York Stadium. 

Dave Watson enjoyed a stellar career at clubs including Rotherham, Sunderland and Man City, while he also won 65 England caps – but he is one of many ex-players who now have dementia

Rotherham have set up a memory club to support former players who suffer with the condition

With the help of the club’s community team, they have a room where they can relax, chat as they watch clips of old games and tuck into sandwiches, home-baked scones and cups of tea supplied by a small army of volunteers. They feel part of something and for a brief time their wives and carers have respite.

Breckin, 70, who made more than 500 appearances for Rotherham and served in various coaching, commercial and community roles, even tempted some of the old players into a kick-about on one of the artificial training pitches. They stood in a circle and passed the ball as they must have done thousands of times over the years. When it rolled towards Watson, however, he looked at it as if he had never seen such a thing in his life.

With some gentle encouragement, he gave it a kick. Next time, he took a tentative touch and passed it on. His confidence flooded back and, soon, he was performing Cruyff turns to inevitable hoots of delight and heckling from former team-mates, quick to point out they had never seen anything so audacious from him in his pomp.

Dressing room dynamics don’t change much when old footballers are brought back together. The captain is still the captain, making the decisions, calling for order and commanding respect. The jokers are still trying to make their mates laugh.

The star player they still admire and look up to, but nobody is immune from a good-natured ribbing. Watson’s face creased into a huge smile. ‘It was like he came alive again, just kicking a ball,’ Breckin tells me. Those fortunate enough to have made careers in professional team sports treasure the friendships and shared experience above all else. Those teams that achieved relative success often bind most tightly.

Rotherham went up from the fourth tier to the second during Breckin’s era. He is associated with good times, and Yorkshire TV highlights of a 6-0 win against Chelsea in October 1981, when Emlyn Hughes was Millers boss, are running on the big screen on the day I call in.

‘We show it every week because Breck scores the first goal,’ jokes one of his pals. One week, they screened footage from the 1973 FA Cup final, a 26-year-old Watson imperious in the Sunderland’s defence as they toppled mighty Leeds at Wembley.

Breckin hosts a table for them at home games and organises walks. Earlier this year, he used his local influence to organise a trip to Millmoor, home to the Millers for 82 years and frozen in time since the club moved out in 2008. Memories flooded back when they unlocked the gates and walked through the tunnel, out on to the pitch. Some took a seat in the stands to absorb the surreal scene. Others explored a little more. All of them emotional.

Watson is part of the club who meet monthly and the former team-mates chat over a cup of tea and some food – while they also watch old clips of games and have even had a kick-about

Rotherham’s brilliant initiative shows it’s not hard for football authorities to help those in need

The Memory Club has proved such a huge hit that the idea has spread. Tony Currie launched one at South Yorkshire neighbours Sheffield United and Sean O’Neill another at nearby Chesterfield. Nottingham Forest and Queen’s Park Rangers are among clubs investing in similar schemes.

So when football’s authorities dodge and weave, claiming it’s difficult to help those ex-players struggling on with dementia, it really isn’t. ‘How many times are we going to have to ask before someone finds a way to help these footballers and their families?’ Joe Jordan asked when his dear friend Gordon McQueen passed away in June at the age of 70, two years after a diagnosis of vascular dementia.

The beauty is it could not be simpler to provide instant practical help. This is not a crusade for a multi-million pound libel claim. They seek a warm place to meet, where they can enjoy company and ease the burden of care on their families for a couple of hours, and receive advice or direction if there is a particular problem.

Every football club in the country can provide this vital service and, in return, their former players will stay connected, part of the club, establishing tiers to the history and identity.

‘I’ve lost 12, 13, 14 of my team-mates with dementia,’ says Breckin. ‘At first, it was the older generation, those who played before me, now I’m losing those I played with. We all hope we’re not next but we don’t know, do we?

‘So it’s good to be bringing it into the open because these lads need a bit of love and care, and sometimes might need to see the right people. It’s a duty for the football club to help.’

Dier is now the odd man out at Spurs 

This time last year, Eric Dier was at the heart of Antonio Conte’s back three at Tottenham, performing well in his best position under a boss committed to the system. 

Suddenly, he’s further than he’s ever been from the Spurs team. Ange Postecoglou wants a back four, a high line and speedy central defenders to cover the space. 

Dier spoke on the pre-season tour to say he was keen to stay and win a place at Euro 2024 but he does not fit the profile and his complete omission from the team and the dressing room’s leadership group seems to say Postecoglou would rather he left now than sat out the final year of his contract.

Eric Dier has had a difficult start to the season under new Tottenham boss Ange Postecoglou

He has been edged out the team by Micky Van de Ven who suits Postecoglou’s style of football

Micky van de Ven’s career was going nowhere when Wim Jonk took charge of Volendam, then in the Dutch second tier, in 2019. Jonk found Van de Ven languishing in the Under 19s. 

He wasn’t tipped for great things but the new boss liked his pace and ability to stride out past opponents with the ball, and duly promoted him. Four years on, he is worth more than £40m because his style fits modern tactical fashions. Dier’s not so much.

Managerial change can mean a seismic shift for individual players — and managerial change is more prevalent than ever these days.

Fifth tier still drawing fans 

Wrexham and Notts County may be gone, and with them the interest of the United States, but crowds of 7,000-plus at title favourites Chesterfield and Oldham shows the National League remains a big draw.

A crowd of 8,164 watched the teams draw 1-1 at Chesterfield on Saturday with Oldham snatching a 95th-minute equaliser to deny the Spireites.

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