Sir Alex Ferguson: it is football's 'duty' to tackle dementia crisis

Sir Alex Ferguson says it is his and football’s ‘duty’ to tackle the dementia crisis… as the Manchester United legend shares his thoughts on heading, ‘disastrous’ VAR and Marcus Rashford’s ‘big heart’

  • Sir Alex Ferguson says he owes it to game to tackle football’s dementia problem 
  • The Scot says Sir Nobby Stiles’ death opened the floodgates for campaign
  • The former Manchester United boss says heading should be reduced in training
  • Ferguson labelled VAR a ‘disaster’ and praised footballers like Marcus Rashford

He may have celebrated his 79th birthday on New Year’s Eve, but Sir Alex Ferguson has lost none of the drive that ushered in the greatest era in Manchester United’s history.

‘I think with Kenny (Dalglish) and I on the one platform you can expect sparks flying,’ he jokes, as we discuss a forthcoming fundraising event to help tackle football’s growing dementia problem, when he will once more face his old compatriot and adversary.

No topics will be off-limits on a night which will see the Glaswegians joined by England manager Gareth Southgate. Not even VAR. 

Sir Alex Ferguson says it is his and football’s ‘duty’ to tackle the game’s dementia crisis

‘It’s a bloody disaster,’ says Ferguson. ‘I watched the Leeds versus Burnley game the other week — Burnley had a goal disallowed when their own player was fouled by the goalkeeper. Unbelievable.’

It is perhaps understandable that Ferguson has been moved to act. United have been far from immune as dementia’s cruel impact continues to devastate the game’s former players.

Following the death of Nobby Stiles in October, his family donated his brain to Dr Willie Stewart, whose ongoing research at the University of Glasgow has already produced alarming statistics on the increased risk to footballers.

The findings left both Dr Stewart and Stiles’s son John in no doubt that heading a ball had triggered his father’s dementia. 

Ferguson (left) will be on an panel with Sir Kenny Dalglish at event to help tackle the problem

Ferguson (centre) has seen former team-mates from his playing days diagnosed with dementia

As Sportsmail has reported, United’s glorious 1968 European Cup-winning side have been decimated by the cruel disease.

Late last year, it was announced Sir Bobby Charlton had been diagnosed. One of Ferguson’s defensive mainstays, Gary Pallister, has told this newspaper of his own fears and of the migraines he suffered throughout his career.

‘It’s littered right throughout the football spectrum,’ says Ferguson. ‘Jeff Astle, Martin Peters, Ray Wilson. And United have had a serious blow themselves with Nobby and Bill Foulkes.

‘It’s been very sad. Bobby’s not been well for quite a while.

‘The gates have been opened by Nobby’s passing and Bobby’s diagnosis. They are huge figures. It has to create an awareness. I don’t know what the Professional Footballers’ Association is doing but the League Managers Association is concerned and (chief executive) Richard Bevan has been fantastic.’  

The former Manchester United manager says the floodgates to tackle the virus were opened by Sir Nobby Stiles’ death in 2020

United and England icon Sir Bobby Charlton (right) was diagnosed with dementia late last year

Ferguson himself was a prolific striker known for his heading ability in a playing career with the likes of Rangers, Dunfermline and Falkirk.

‘Those leather balls,’ he recalls. ‘When water got into them, it was like heading a cannonball. Really heavy work. I headed the ball a lot but thank God it’s not hit me yet.

‘At the end of the day we have to see what we can do to help. Football has a duty to look at the situation. It’s the right thing to do. People like myself owe it to the game to see if there’s something we can do.’ 

Dr Stewart’s research, carried out a stone’s throw from Ferguson’s old stomping ground in Govan, has found repeated instances of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma — among former footballers, including Stiles.  

World Cup winners Stiles (right) and Jack Charlton (centre) both passed away in 2020

‘It’s hard to put your finger on what exactly the link is,’ adds Ferguson. ‘You watch the film Raging Bull, about Jake LaMotta. He had 106 fights and lived until he was 95.

‘I think a lot of it is down to the type of head injuries you get, but we need more research.’

Ferguson, who suffered a brain haemorrhage in 2018, is on good form. United’s recent improvement under his former striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been noted.

‘It’s not an easy road to get back into challenging for the league,’ he says. ‘It’s a difficult league these days.’ 

As you would expect, he has been delighted by the example set by Marcus Rashford, who took on the Government and won as part of his own wideranging and inspiring mission to help the poor.

‘He’s always been a good kid,’ he says of the campaigning 23–year-old. ‘He joined us when he was nine years of age. When you see people’s demeanour, behaviour, way of carrying themselves and ability to change things, that’s him. He’s got that.

Marcus Rashford led a campaign to tackle childhood poverty during the coronavirus pandemic

‘He’s come from a working-class background and he knows what it’s like. When I was at school you had the free dinners and Marcus knows exactly what that’s like.’

Ferguson believes others will come forward to support the game’s fight against dementia.

‘I know the boy at United, Juan Mata, who gives a percentage of his wages to charity,’ he says.  

‘Look at what Rashford has done. Not all footballers are out buying cars. There’s a big percentage with a big heart. Football people aren’t idle.’

As if to prove the point, Ferguson is speaking from the family kitchen as he helps to prepare dinner.

‘Mrs Ferguson has got me working very hard,’ he explains, laughing. ‘I’m putting the food in the oven as we speak.’

Before the call ends, I ask for Ferguson’s thoughts on reducing heading in training, one of the seven demands in Sportsmail’s campaign.

Ferguson says Rashford’s actions shows there’s big percentage of footballers with ‘big hearts’

‘Heading is a part of football that has been there for over 100 years and you can’t take it out,’ he says.

‘But I think it would be easy to reduce it in training.’

He laughs again. ‘We never used to practise it much anyway — unless we were playing Wimbledon’. 

To book a seat at ‘Team Talk with Legends – Live’, which starts at 7pm on January 15, visit

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