Gary Pallister: 'I'm a prime candidate for dementia, it felt like I had a head full of seashells'Former England and Man Utd centre-back reveals how ill heading made him and calls for it to be removed from children's game
ByJeremy Wilson, CHIEF SPORTS REPORTER9 October 2021 • 6:30pm
It was back in August, with the Olympics in full swing and Harry Kane trying to force through a move to Manchester City, that the University of Glasgow published a piece of research that was plausibly the most important in football history.
It arrived with little comment from the authorities but the results have certainly registered in the minds of a generation of players. Former defenders are five times more likely to be diagnosed with dementia. Those who played professionally for more than 15 years in any position are also at five times more risk. There is no sign of drop-off even among those who played in the later era in the 1980s and 1990s.
“I’m probably one of those who have stuck my head in the sand and thought: ‘I hope it’s not me’,” says Gary Pallister, the 56-year-old former Manchester United, Middlesbrough and England centre-back.
“I suffered awful migraines. I've been knocked clean out. I've been on the pitch, woken up, and not known where I am. You put it all together and you start thinking: ‘Crikey, I’m a prime candidate for dementia’. It’s not a 100 per cent thing, I’m guessing, but you are thinking, ‘If you are a betting man, the odds are that you are probably at some time in your life going to get it’.”
It is an awful thought but Pallister, with typical honesty, has reached the conclusion that it is better to use his profile to raise awareness of the issue and place pressure on the football authorities to act.
He was part of a group of more than 60 former players, which also included Gary Lineker, Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer, who called for an urgent three-pronged ‘protect, prevent, preserve’ strategy that addresses the issue at all generations of the game.
Organised by the charity Head for Change, he also attended the first match with heading restrictions and, at the very least, believes that children should be protected and adults better informed.
“I look back and think, ‘My own experience tells me that heading had an effect’,” he says. "I suffered a lot with migraines when I started playing as a 16-year-old twice a weekend.
“I used to think, ‘Is it because I am playing more football, heading more footballs?’ The migraines continued all through my career. It’s black and white for me now that football was one of the main reasons I was probably getting them.
“I had to go into a darkened room. I started throwing up. I would lose my speech. Get tingling on my arms. Lose my vision. Get blurred vision. It felt like I had a head full of seashells. Any movement caused pain. It was a real weird feeling. It would wipe me out for two days.”
Pallister still played more than 700 games through his career, winning four Premier League titles and three FA Cups among numerous honours with Manchester United. He was voted Player of the Year by his fellow professionals in 1992 and says that the migraines only directly impacted his career when he was forced out of an England training camp under Terry Venables.
“I would probably have bad migraines four or five times a year,” he says. “I read up a lot of stuff. Migraines were blamed on diet, lack of sleep, water and hydration. There was always maybe another excuse. You were thinking, ‘Is it the heading?’ You brush it to the back of your mind and hope it wasn’t heading.
“But once I stopped playing football the migraines eased to a point where for a number of years I didn't suffer them. Over the last couple of years, I have started getting them back a little bit but nowhere near the severity. I just get the vision thing and they are done and dusted within a couple of hours.”
The most serious concussion, says Pallister, was during an FA Cup match for Middlesbrough against Everton. “Nev Southall missed the ball and punched me in the back of my head,” he says. “At the end of that half my vision started to go. I was saying to the manager at the time: ‘Look I can’t see people.’ He’s going: ‘You’ll be alright second half.' I was going: ‘No, you don't understand. I can’t see the ball to head it. I can’t see players.'
"That was the kind of mentality you were dealing with at the time. I spent the night under observation at Middlesbrough General, released the next day, straight back into training a couple of days later. I know that was a consequence of a direct blow to the head. It became more talked about in our sport as my career came to an end but there was never really enough investigation into it.”
Terry Butcher, another former England defender, has called for heading to be phased out of football. Pallister is undecided but is certain on the need for education and action to protect children. “What you have got to do is make people aware - give them the information they need before they participate,” he says.
“Too many people have stuck their heads in the sand and maybe hoped it would go away. They have to protect kids while their brains and skulls are still growing.”