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‘Heading the ball to blame for my dementia’ says Scots football legend Denis Law

Football legend Denis Law has said heading the ball is directly to blame for his shock dementia diagnosis.

The former Manchester United and Scotland star told how he wants all retired players to get tested every year for the condition, which has affected so many of his contemporaries.

In his first interview since revealing he has the neurological disorder, he said he was in no doubt that the heavy leather balls he played with are responsible.

An emotional Denis, 81, said: “What else would it be? That was what caused damage to the brain.

“You were heading the ball, which was quite heavy in those days, but you didn’t think about it. We just thought it was normal.

“Now as time goes on, you are thinking, ‘Why should I be having this problem?’

“When you are playing two games a week and heading the ball in games then there are obvious dangers.

“I would support anything that stops this illness affecting other players.”

The footballing great – nicknamed “The King” by Manchester United fans – last week went public about his
diagnosis.

From the home near Manchester he shares with wife Diana, who he married in 1962, Denis said he has been flooded with messages of support.

Everyone from ordinary fans to football giants like Sir Alex Ferguson have been getting in touch.

But he revealed he has known for five years that something was not right.

The former striker said: “My memory has not been so good.

“I hadn’t been going out and I hadn’t been seeing friends.

“After a while you start forgetting people you really know because you haven’t seen them, you haven’t spoken to them.

Denis Law playing for Manchester United in 1970

“The family said, ‘You must make it known to the public’, which I didn’t particularly fancy. But I was getting worse anyway. I was forgetting people’s names.”

Aberdeen -born Denis, who was capped 55 times for Scotland and is the country’s joint-top scorer of all time with 30 goals, said he believes the poor-quality muddy pitches he played on in the 60s were a factor in him getting the condition.

Footballs became soaked with water during games, making them more dangerous to head.

He added: “I think that was what caused the damage to the brain.”

While Denis was best known for his clinical footwork, several of his goals were scored using his head.

Fans would watch the 5ft7ins player soar above defenders to score from a corner kick or dive low to steer a ball into the net using the top of his head.

Denis says he stopped heading the ball in training towards the end of his career for his own wellbeing.

He added: “I decided I no longer wanted to head the ball when I wasn’t playing in games.

“It wasn’t very nice, particularly when it was wet and it was quite sore at times.”

Denis hopes that football clubs and scientists will now do more to tackle the issue.

Five years ago, the Sunday Mail launched a campaign to highlight links between football and dementia, which brought a wave of support.

Dozens of ex-players came forward to reveal they were living with the condition, including Celtic legend Billy McNeill, who died two years later.

Last year, Denis told how he was in tears after Mancheter United teammate Nobby Stiles died having battled dementia, then Red Devils’ great Bobby Charlton was also diagnosed with the illness.

Ex-Dundee United defender Frank Kopel, who was also a teammate at Old Trafford, died from dementia in 2008.

His widow Amanda has successfully campaigned for more research into the condition and its links to heading the ball.

Ex Manchester Utd, Blackburn and Dundee Utd player Frank Kopel at home in Kirriemuir with his wife Amanda Kopel
Ex Manchester Utd, Blackburn and Dundee Utd player Frank Kopel at home in Kirriemuir with his wife Amanda Kopel

In June, Lisbon Lion Bertie Auld revealed he too had the condition.

Denis, who scored an incredible 237 goals in 404 appearances for United and is the only Scot to win the Ballon d’Or is the sixth player from the club’s European Cup-winning squad of 1968 to succumb to dementia.

He said: “People realise that if you head the ball even today that there are risks. There definitely needs to be more research.”

He also backs the SFA’s decision last year to ban under-12 players from heading the ball in training and supports plans for an extra sub to be put on if a player comes off with a head injury.

He said “Anything that stops this problem occurring would be welcome. Anything to stop the possibility of you having this illness.”

Denis, who has both Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, said: “I want to address my situation now, while I am able – because I know there will be days when I don’t understand and I hate the thought of that right now.”

The dad of five plans to continue supporting his charity the Denis Law Legacy Trust.

His daughter Diana is completing The Thames Bridges Trek on September 11 for the Alzheimer’s Society.

He’s hoping to be in Scotland soon and said: “We spent a week in Aberdeen recently. It was really nice to be home.”



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