Len Johnrose concerned by lack of awareness about MND threat to footballers

The raised threat to footballers from motor neurone disease has “barely caused a ripple”, according to Len Johnrose.

The former Preston, Burnley and Blackburn player, who was diagnosed with the degenerative, life-limiting disease in 2017, has been seeking to raise awareness by going into clubs and speaking to players as part of his Project 92 campaign.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced him to stop the visits, and he is now working with high-profile sports figures to raise £92,000, starting with the launch of a new video.

The launch comes just a week after the death of former Hearts and Rangers defender Marius Zaliukas from motor neurone disease aged just 36, and Johnrose is determined that more be known about the condition among footballers.

Johnrose told the PA news agency: “Footballers are four times more likely to get MND. That should cause massive shockwaves but it’s barely caused a ripple. We really need to get that message out there.”

Johnrose was referencing findings contained in the FIELD study published last year, which found footballers were at a significantly heightened risk of developing a range of neurodegenerative diseases compared to the general population.

The issue is back in the spotlight after Sir Bobby Charlton’s wife confirmed he has been diagnosed with dementia.

Four of Charlton’s team-mates in England’s 1966 World Cup-winning line-up who have died over the last two and a half years – his brother Jack, Ray Wilson, Martin Peters and Nobby Stiles – were also suffering from dementia.

Johnrose says not enough has been done to examine why the risk of neurological disease is greater among footballers than other groups.

“Five of the World Cup-winning squad (are living with or died with dementia) – and the FA have done nothing about it, absolutely nothing,” he said.

“The PFA has been pressed to do something, but since then nothing, absolutely nothing at all.”

Sir Bobby Charlton has been diagnosed with dementia, his wife has said
Sir Bobby Charlton has been diagnosed with dementia, his wife has said (Brian Lawless/PA)

The FA and PFA jointly funded the FIELD study, and the national governing body also commissioned work by Loughborough University which has now been completed, and found that old leather balls weighed approximately 40 per cent more when wet compared to when they were dry, and the resultant impact force was significantly higher.

It is also supporting two separate research studies with Nottingham University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which are examining former professional footballers for early signs of neurocognitive degeneration. Both studies are expected to conclude within the next two years.

The FA also published new guidelines earlier this year which recommended that heading should not form part of training sessions for children of primary school age.

Johnrose is joined in the Project 92 film by Sky presenters Jeff Stelling and Jacqui Oatley, England Women and Manchester City Women forward Ellen White, Everton’s Alex Iwobi and PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor among others. It also features former footballer Stephen Darby, who also suffers from MND.

Johnrose has set up a text donate number to raise money for the MND Association. People can donate £10 to the charity by texting MNDLEN to 70085.

Asked if MND was effectively a forgotten illness, he added: “Without a doubt. Maybe I’m biased but I’ve said this before – everyone knows about various cancers, almost everyone has contributed to a cancer charity whether they have been affected by cancer or not.  Somehow we’ve got to raise awareness, it’s not as rare as people think.”

There is a one in 300 risk of a person developing MND in their lifetime. There are still no clear answers about what causes it, and there is no cure.

Johnrose intends to continue raising awareness within clubs once the situation in the country makes it possible.

Former #Rovers midfielder @LJohnrose returned to the club as part of his 'Project 92' to raise awareness for the @mndassoc. 💙

More: https://t.co/n4bPdnoyzVpic.twitter.com/1PfcdP2bGB

— Blackburn Rovers (@Rovers) March 3, 2019

His speech has been affected by the disease, but he says he has banked his voice to enable him to get the message across.

“I’m not going to let the fact that I can’t communicate myself hold me back,” he said.

“I use my banked voice to get the message across and if anything that makes it even more real (for players), then they can see what MND is really about.

“The fact that I’m now in a wheelchair and can’t speak properly in one way is not great but I’ve got to use that to good effect and I intend to do that.”

:: You can find out more about the fund-raising effort at www.mndassociation.org/project92

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