A hero and the price he paid: Matt Tees and dementia

Cod Almighty | Article

by Ron Counte

8 November 2018

Matt Tees made sure a generation of fans fell in love with Grimsby Town. But he is paying an awful price for his footballing prowess

Matt Tees

I fell in love with Grimsby Town in 1971. I had been to a few games before then but it was the all-conquering McMenemy side of the 1971-72 season that got me hooked for life.

The team was packed out with legends. As they walked out on to the pitch, to my impressionable young eyes they might just have stepped down from Mount Olympus.

They were skippered by perma-tanned Dave Worthington, the classic attacking full-back. He would embark on surging runs down the wing and deliver penetrating crosses which wrought havoc in opposing defences. In the centre of the park we had Dave Boylen, the epitome of the midfield general, and the awesome Lew Chatterley. On the wing was blond bombshell Stuart Brace. He would tease opposing defenders into a challenge by gently stroking the ball along before a sudden burst of acceleration would lead them floundering in his wake. We had arguably the most potent super-sub the club has ever seen in Jack Lewis.

But towering above all of them was the incredible Matt Tees.

Matt was nothing to look at. At 5 foot 10 and 10½ stone, he appeared so insubstantial that you half expected a gust of wind to blow him into the stands.

Matt was so insubstantial that you half expected a gust of wind to blow him into the stands. It seemed that he could leap a yard higher than anyone else and hang in the air awaiting the arrival of the ball

Maybe his slightness of frame explains why he apparently possessed the power of flight. It seemed that he could leap a yard higher than anyone else on the pitch and hang in the air, as if standing on a hoverboard, awaiting the arrival of the ball. When it reached him, he could direct headers with such power and force that they were virtually unstoppable. We probably had to repair the goal nets each week when Matt was on target.

In his autobiographical pamphlet Matt Tees on Football he put his amazing aerial prowess down to the fact that he was usually carrying a stone less than most defenders. He would wait outside the box at corners and then run in with momentum taking him high into the air. "For a split second, I had the whole sky to myself! So long as I got the timing right my head would hit the ball really hard..."

It is amazing that someone so slight in stature could be such a goalscoring powerhouse in the brutal environs of the lower divisions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Sendings-off were rare: anything short of an injury requiring immediate reconstructive surgery was just part of the rough and tumble of the game. But somehow Tees prospered. In that unforgettable 1971-72 season, he notched up 27 league goals, many of them headers.

The atmosphere at Blundell Park in those days was incredible. With occasional attendances of 15,000+, even exceeding 22,000 a couple of times, the Barrett stand was a heaving mass, reeking of tobacco, beer and sweat. But it was a kind of heaven. Being part of that crowd in that season was an unbelievably exciting experience.

These days, anyone suggesting the return of a former player is likely to be accused of living in the past. Don't ever run that argument past anyone lucky enough to have witnessed Matt's second spell with the Mariners. He, and later his team-mate Clive Wigginton, were absolute proof that a second spell at the club could enhance rather than diminish a player's legendary status.

Footballing damage

Such heroic figures live on in dreams and recollections long after they have departed the club. They are to some extent frozen in time, forever young in our rose-tinted memories. But in reality they move on and grow old like the rest of us. We don't often get to revisit them in their later years and sometimes it's perhaps better if we don't.

In Matt Tees on Football, Matt listed his footballing "damage" as two replacement hips, fusion operations on both ankles, and two front teeth knocked out. Sadly there was far worse to come.

Last year Alan Shearer presented a documentary on dementia among retired footballers, focusing especially on prolific heading of leather footballs. Some very high-profile cases had been reported in the media. Notably, Jeff Astle developed dementia in middle age and died in 2002 at the age of 59. The coroner found that his death was due to repeated minor traumas to his brain and a verdict of "death by industrial injury" was recorded. A football-related injury ended his life.

Shearer interviewed the family of Matt Tees. Now in his late 70s, Matt too is suffering from dementia. His wife May claims to know at least eight other former players in the local area with a similar condition.

Dementia involves not only the loss of memory, but the loss of self. Vocabulary shrinks and later almost all recall disappears. One of the most shocking experiences of my life was the moment my father had to ask someone who I was

I have had personal experience of a family member with dementia. Degenerative and incurable, it is incredibly distressing for all concerned. Dementia involves not only the loss of memory, but the loss of self. It can start with mild forgetfulness, which may be passed off as having 'senior moments'. But soon vocabulary shrinks as words can no longer be recalled. Short-term memory is first to go, and later almost all recall disappears.

One of the most shocking experiences of my life was the moment my father had to ask someone who I was. In the end there is total confusion and the sufferer loses all notions of personal hygiene and dignity. It is almost a return to infancy as brain function is almost entirely lost.

If football is a contributory factor to this condition then it is a very serious and troubling issue. Common sense suggests that repeated blows to the head must have some long-term consequences. But does repeated heading a football over a prolonged period really damage the brain?

The scientific evidence is not 100 per cent conclusive, and investigations into potential links are continuing. Dementia is exceedingly common in older people these days; there are an estimated 850,000 sufferers in the UK, many of whom have never headed a football in their lives.

However, there are several forms of dementia. The type associated with heading is called chronic trauma encephalopathy (CTE). Shearer revealed that, in addition to headers during matches, he would head the ball up to a hundred times a day in training and it is thought that such regularly repeated head trauma could be a serious risk factor to the condition. Astle's autopsy revealed that he was indeed suffering from CTE.

We are all aware of the tragic death of Kevin Moore, who passed away at the age of 55 suffering from frontotemporal dementia (FTD). Currently there is no firm evidence of a causal link between FTD and heading a football. The causes of this very rare form of dementia are unknown, but there is some data to suggest it is at least partly hereditary. However the condition is caused by the death of nerve cells in the frontal and temporal lobes, and one wonders if repeated contact between ball and forehead may be a contributory factor in cases where the individual is already susceptible to the condition.

Sporting Memories session

Each Wednesday morning between 10 and 12, the Mariners Trust Lower Young’s Bar at Blundell Park plays host to a Sporting Memories session. While Sporting Memories has ties to dementia, thanks in part to a piece that Matt himself featured in, it is not limited to those with dementia; many attendees just like to meet like-minded people each week. The sessions may include memorabilia and quizzes, but usually end up focused on the latest happenings at Blundell Park. Past and current players like John McDermott and Harry Clifton have kindly come along to speak to the group, with more guest speakers planned as the group continues to gain strength and friendships are cemented. The kettle is on and the biscuit tin open to anybody who wishes to pop down.

More research is required. FIFA and UEFA have been slow to look into this issue, but the FA is now conducting its own research. For now we do not yet have conclusive evidence of a definitive causal link between CTE and heading.

Consider what would happen to the game of football if a definite link is established. We could develop lighter balls, but unless the game is played with balloons, it is hard to see how the impact of balls against head can be significantly lessened much further.

There is a myth that the old leather footballs were far heavier than modern balls. This is not the case when the balls are weighed dry. However, modern balls are far more water-resistant, whereas the old balls would soak up water and, when wet, could increase in weight by a staggering 50 per cent. We could perhaps see players having to wear protective headgear.

Alternatively there could be a rule change whereby heading the ball is deemed to be an offence in the same way as handling. This would remove the header as a part of the game. In light of fears of possible links to brain damage among youngsters, in 2015 the US football authorities banned heading for all players under the age of 11.

Sadly, none of this can help Matt Tees. It is at least comforting to see that he is being well looked after by loving family members. The tens of thousands of people to whom he gave such great pleasure will wish him well.

Thanks to Grimsby Town FC for the photograph of Matt Tees in action.

Get in touch with your own memories of Matt Tees and your thoughts on the issue his story raises