The Iron Liddy Column

Memories ….. light the corners of my mind .…. and the headers, the tackles, the mazy runs, and the goals.

It’s Mother’s Day and I’m sitting here reflecting on one of my Mum’s favourite records, in fact the only one I ever remember her buying as an EP when I was young, and it occurred to me that a modified line from Gladys Knight & The Pips’ 1975 hit would make a good epigram for an article that I’ve been mulling over for a while.

Some of the regular readers of WHTID will know that sadly my Mum was finally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a year ago and it was during my efforts to inform and educate myself about this cruel disease that I discovered that football is being used as a key to unlock dementia patients’ memories and to engage with them in a meaningful and therapeutic way.

In 2011 a social enterprise called Sporting Memories Network (SMN) was founded to run community-wide sports reminiscence projects. Their aim was to use archival sports images, reports, and memorabilia to engage older people in both stimulating conversation and reminiscence to promote mental and physical well-being. Sport is a powerful medium for many people, providing memories of great games, sporting legends and marvellous victories, but also the friendships made and the sense of community that playing or watching sports brings. Talking about sporting events and cultures of the time helps to give people their identity back and reconnect them to the people and generations around them.

The SMN initially ran a pilot project with fifteen care homes in Leeds to test and refine their approach. After receiving background training, each home was supplied with archival images and a training manual. The project was evaluated by Dr Michael Clark, Research Programme Manager, Personal Social Services Research Unit at the London School of Economics. In his evaluation report, Dr. Clark wrote:

“The Sporting Memories work is appealing to people and draws out enthusiasm and personal information that would otherwise have been dormant.”

His report noted a positive impact not only on the wellbeing of residents but also on the staff, as they too enjoyed hearing about great football games of the past.

In 2013 a dementia care unit was built close to Sunderland football club’s Stadium of Light. The Roker ward – named after the club’s former ground Roker Park – at Monkwearmouth hospital, provides 12 beds for men aged over 65 who have both functional and organic mental health needs. This unit replaced a ward in Cherry Knowle hospital in Ryhope, which previously successfully trialled sport as a focus for reminiscence therapy. The Sporting Memories Network worked with the ward staff to show them how they could use images of famous footballers and sports stars from days gone by as a trigger for conversation, debate and reminiscence.

Finding meaningful ways to connect and engage with dementia patients is always challenging. Football provides an alternative focus for men who are often reluctant to join in other group and reminiscence based activities. Memories of players, matches and sports events from 30, 40, 50 or even 60 years ago can become clear when prompted. Geoff Willis, the ward manager said:

“It’s often difficult to engage older men in meaningful activities but using sporting memories as a framework has worked for us; most clients are keen to share their memories about football. They become animated and passionate and have so much to tell you.”

The Sporting Memories Network ensures that new materials are made available on a regular basis to keep the sessions and conversations fresh. They now even publish a weekly reminiscence newspaper called The Sporting Pink based on the tradition of many city-based evening newspapers in Britain to produce a special weekly edition with football news, published each weekend known both colloquially and formally as the Pink ‘Un. They were printed by their mainstream newspaper on pink paper, hence the name. Some were included with Friday or Saturday editions, and some were sold separately. In addition to the Pink ’Un, a lesser number of such papers also produced a Green ’Un, printed on green paper, which covered horse racing. Going out to buy the Pink ’Un or Green ’Un on a Saturday evening was a tradition for sports fans across the country for many years. SMN’s The Sporting Pink newspaper is filled with archival sporting images and match reports for the staff to use for reminiscence.

As well as hospital centered initiatives the SMN also run community based projects in England, Wales, and Scotland which are volunteer led. Premier League, Football League, Super league, and County Cricket Clubs are involved in hosting and running some of the groups. Other venues include libraries, museums, social clubs, and pubs.

The network has gained the support of current and former sports stars including footballers Robbie Savage, Chris Kamara and Nigel Martyn; and David Coulthard, Ross Brawn and Nico Rosberg from Formula One. Sporting bodies such as the Professional Footballers’ Association, and the British Racing Drivers’ Club, are also supporting the work. Some of these sports personalities have added their own recollections to the SMN’s online database of memories which is hosted and maintained by the associated Sporting Memories Foundation

The SMN also works with professional sports clubs by raising awareness of dementia through scheduled league matches which are designated ‘Memories Games’. This aspect of the Sporting Memories Network work was acknowledged in the first annual report on the progress of the Prime Minister’s challenge on dementia and their work with Everton Football Club was published as an example of best practice in the Alzheimer’s Society 2013 report on Creating Dementia-Friendly Communities.

In a 2014 interview by The Telegraph Tony Jameson-Allen, a former psychiatric nurse and one of the co-founders of the Sporting Memories Network, said:

“Using sport to engage and interest elderly people with memory problems is a great way to help them feel alive again. Using football for reminiscence-based activities for older people has been very popular, especially among men; we get them together for 90 minutes once a week ….. we use images and photos to stimulate memories, and even serve Bovril and meat pies at half time.

“Every week, we publish a version of the traditional Saturday paper Pink ’Un. We added a spot-the-ball competition, and found that women were particularly keen. It seemed many ladies had a shared memory of not being allowed to fill these in, as husbands liked to mark where the ball should be.

“We’ve found older people would rather talk about which pub they went to on match day, rather than discussing topics of loss such as the War; sport doesn’t usually hold negative memories – they centre on community, humour and friendship instead.”

More recently, in November 2016 the Alzheimer’s Society’s initiative Dementia Friends launched their own football memories group to help combat the effects of dementia. The UK’s leading dementia charity is asking all 111 Premier League and English Football League and Women’s Super League clubs across England and Wales to run Dementia Friends Information Sessions.

Dementia Friends are working to ensure that football clubs are places where people with dementia and their carers feel understood and included; and to tackle the social isolation the charity knows often follows a dementia diagnosis.

Alzheimer’s Society’s Dementia Friends programme is the biggest ever initiative to change people’s perceptions of dementia. It aims to transform the way the nation thinks, acts and talks about the condition so that people can feel involved and included in their communities and continue doing the things they love.

Dementia Friends Information Sessions will be delivered to match-day staff and stewards at clubs nationwide so that they understand what it’s like to live with dementia and the small ways in which they can help people on match days.

Speaking about the new campaign, Alzheimer’s Society Head of Policy George McNamara said:

“Life doesn’t have to end when dementia begins and people living with the condition should be able to continue doing the things they want to do, like supporting their football club, after a diagnosis.

“Football clubs, which are right at the heart of our communities, can make a real difference to the lives of fans affected by dementia by helping staff and fellow supporters become Dementia Friends.”

There are 1.7 million Dementia Friends and Alzheimer’s Society wants to reach four million people by 2020. Clubs across the nation, such as our fellow East London team Leyton Orient, are showing their support for people by staging Dementia Friends sessions. You can read more about these sessions here

Phillip Smith, Leyton Orient’s Health and Wellbeing Activator, said:

“We are pleased to be able to support Alzheimer’s Society in raising awareness of dementia in the local community of Waltham Forest. We are in a unique position to be able to engage with such a large number of people and as part of the wider health engagement plan the club and trust have developed.

“We are dedicated to improving and supporting the health of our fans and local community members. We want to ensure that fans living with dementia can continue to engage with the club both on match days and within our community sessions too.”

The family of England’s 1966 World Cup hero Ray Wilson, who played for Everton and Huddersfield, and is living with Alzheimer’s disease, is backing the Dementia Friends Football campaign.

Speaking about the campaign, Ray’s wife Pat said:

“Ray might be living with dementia but he still really loves going to watch football matches because the game is in his blood.

“He goes to Huddersfield games with our son, and like most fans he’ll kick and head every ball and make every tackle in his mind because he’s so passionate.

“Sometimes we noticed fans sat around him were a bit taken aback by some of the things he says and his actions, but the more aware of his dementia they’ve become the more understanding they’ve been which is really nice and comforting for the whole family.”

There are 850,000 people living in the UK with dementia which affects many household names like Ray and fellow World Cup winners Martin Peters and Nobby Stiles as well as many footballers who made their name during the 1970s such as former England international Stan Bowles. And of course it affects ordinary football fans like you, me and our loved ones.

Football is such an intrinsic part of British culture that it can also be a touchstone for members of our society who don’t necessarily have a huge vested interest in or passion for the game but they love the people who do. In a moving article he wrote for The Guardian in 2007 Pete May, West Ham fan, journalist and author, talks about football being the bond he still shared with his dad despite their political differences and the encroaching frailties of his dad’s old age. In the same article he talks about his mum’s relationship with West Ham and it’s one that I could relate to when he wrote:

“My mum went to West Ham v Man United in 1971, but was disgusted by the swearing. She always took an interest in the results, though, and became a proxy Hammers fan. We spent a horrible week by her hospital bedside in September. She had Alzheimer’s disease, needed a hip operation and had just been operated on for a burst stomach ulcer. But after two days in critical care, she came round. She was hopelessly confused, and kept worrying about where the family were going to eat, asking, “Shall we go to the Anvil [the local pub]?” Then she suddenly said “I support West Ham!” It was a sign that she knew I was there. Two days later, her body gave up and she died.”

My own mum isn’t really a huge football fan but she’s always taken an interest in West Ham’s fortunes because of me and I liked it when she affectionately used to say “you and your football, you’re as bad as your dad.” In latter years as she’s become more housebound she’s even taken to watching our televised games when she can, I think because it gave her a shared interest and something to talk about to me and Mr L. As her memory has deteriorated West Ham is still the first subject she thinks of when she wants to initiate a conversation with me about what I’ve been up to and I can’t help smiling wryly when without fail she responds to my latest Hammers news with “they play in that big place that you don’t like now don’t they?” Yes mum, sadly they do.

As I continued to explore the subject I discovered that directed reminiscence therapy based on football has also been adopted in Scotland and that group sessions have been held for sufferers and their carers in the Hampden Park Museum amongst the football artefacts and memorabilia in order to help trigger memories. Andrew Lowndes, of Glasgow Caledonian University, also a mental health nurse, described what happened at one such session:

“220 guys with their families and carers [were] there today. … and the recall from these guys is absolutely fantastic, people who are probably struggling day to day with their memories, but when you show them players from the 1950s and 60s they can rhyme the whole team off and tell you quite complicated facts about games and times when they went to matches.”

He went on to say:

“One of the most understated effects of dementia is the depression that accompanies it. If you are constantly being asked questions about things that you don’t have an answer for it can become very hard to cope with. Most times sufferers know that they don’t have the answer to something simple and that can bring on depression.
These sessions allow them to become a person again, feeling full and feeling they’ve got a connection with other people again with similar memories – this idea of everybody having a collective memory that they shared once upon a time on the terracing perhaps or in the pub after a match, they are able to re-engage with that. And the way that these men begin to engage with each other and the banter that flies around when they begin to do this, is fantastic and you see a glint in their eye; and family members tell us after the events that this was like having their man back again and it’s really very rewarding.”

The impact of football based reminiscence therapy is perhaps best summed up by the wife of a patient involved in the Alzheimer Scotland Football Memories programme.

She said:

“I drive here with this sad person with dementia and I take home my husband. He’s a different person when he comes out … it’s put new life into him, and you can see that with all the men there."

Thinking about the fact that these sessions took place within the setting of the Hampden Park football museum really served to compound my profound anger and disappointment that the current West Ham board took the decision to auction off our club’s memorabilia when we left Upton Park last year. They may only be dusty artefacts to some but for many older West Ham fans, especially those suffering from dementia, they could have been valuable portals to memories which would enable them to reconnect with their past and their present and give them back their sense of identity and self-esteem. Some of these items were procured with the assistance of financial donations by fans for the West Ham museum that was opened at The Boleyn ground in Bobby Moore’s memory on 23rd October 2002; and which silently and mysteriously disappeared ….. but that’s a story for another article.

Feeling very disgruntled with the club I decided to investigate whether West Ham may have redeemed themselves in my eyes slightly by engaging with the Dementia Friends project. While I couldn’t find any evidence of the club being involved in dementia programmes I did discover that the West Ham United Foundation have teamed up with an organization called Friends of the Elderly to host social events aimed fans over the age of 65. Back in March 2015 they ran a 5 week programme during which they invited older members of the West Ham community to share their memories and contribute to a sporting stories project at events attended by people connected to the club over the past 50 years. The programme also aimed to help senior West Ham fans learn how to stay connected to the club online.

In November 2016 the project was relaunched under the name Any Old Irons at an event attended by Julian Dicks and our goalkeepers Adrian and Darren Randolph. Run in conjunction with the Premier League and the Professional Footballers’ Association, the Any Old Irons project is part of the Football Friends programme. The initiative gives participants the opportunity to connect with other fans and local people in their community, bringing them together for fun and friendship. Again, those attending can also learn how to stay in touch with their fellow fans and the club using digital technology.

Don Adams, who’s 67 and from East London, took part in the first Football Friends programme in March 2015. After retiring six years ago, Don found there was nothing of interest for him to get involved with. He said:

“You hear so many things aimed at senior women but little for men. It’s a shame – the Football Friends programme has changed my life. It’s got me out of the house, it’s got me interacting with other people and I’ve made new friends.”

You can listen to an 8 minute BBC Radio London audio recording of the event here
, which includes an interview with Dicksy.

At the beginning of February this year the Friends of the Elderly Any Old Irons project was the subject of the Radio 4 Appeal which you can listen to here

The next Any Old Irons event is on Tuesday 4th April when West Ham fans over the age of 65 have been invited to share their memories with David Gold during a free afternoon tea at East Ham Working Men’s Club. You can find the details of this event here. Spaces at the tea are limited and will be allocated on a first reserved basis. Those interested in attending should call 0330 332 1110 or email

The dates for the next two Any Old Irons 5 week programmes are:

Wednesday 26 April – Wednesday 24 May
Wednesday 21 June – Wednesday 19 July

If you are over the age of 65 and interested in attending you can reserve a place via the same contact details. Telephone 0330 332 1110 or email
Please consider passing these details on to older Hammers, particularly those who you know aren’t connected to the club online. They’re probably the fans who would benefit from this the most.

I feel somewhat mollified by the Any Old Irons programme of events but I still think that a new West Ham Museum would be a valuable asset to our community, particularly in view of the empirical evidence unearthed by my research. We have an aging population and cases of all types of dementia are a growing concern. A properly curated museum would offer a permanent base for these valuable therapy sessions as well as other measurable benefits; but as I said, that’s a subject for another article.

I expect that a few of our younger readers stopped reading after the first paragraph or two. You may think that none of this is relevant to your life now but in what will seem like the blink of an eye you or your parents could be facing these issues too and football could prove to be the key that will enable you to open the door and step back into a past where you can find your loved ones again. You may roll your eyes, sigh and keep scrolling when another nostalgia article appears and all the old gits on WHTID start banging on about the good old days but one day soon these days will be your good old days too.

I’ll leave you with some sound advice from Gladys: Some West Ham memories are much too painful to remember …… so it’s the laughter we’ll remember, whenever we remember The Way We Were