HE WAS the archetypal centre forward, the big striker who could hang in the air before he headed the ball into the net - but Jeff Astle was killed by the game he loved.
Recording a verdict of death by industrial disease, a coroner’s court in Burton-upon-Trent confirmed that Astle’s demise was caused by repeatedly heading the ball.
It was the first time the family of a former British professional footballer had proved that players who are "good with their head" are more susceptible to brain injuries and illnesses.
In 1999, the former Celtic player Billy McPhail failed to convince the Scottish courts that the same skill had later caused him memory loss and brought on the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
Yesterday, Derek Robson, a consultant neurological pathologist, told the Astle inquest that the former England centre forward showed evidence of brain injury consistent with "repeated minor trauma".
He even compared Astle’s condition to the brain conditions suffered by boxers.
"It is unlikely that he would have developed evidence of trauma so young if he had not headed a football repeatedly. He may not have even developed the condition," he said.
Astle died in January at the Queen’s Hospital, Burton, Staffordshire, aged 59, after collapsing at his daughter’s home.
His post-mortem examination showed signs of the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, though this was not found to be a significant factor in his death.
Dr Robson’s prognosis was accepted by the coroner, Andrew Haigh, who concluded that Astle’s death had been caused by a build-up of protein in the vessels of the brain.
The prevalence of similar problems among players persuaded the Football Association in England to commit 116,000 last year to research the link between brain injury and heading. It is, however, a ten-year project and unlikely to help the men who were once most at risk of injury.
These were the players of the post-war era through to the 1960s, who played when balls were made of absorbent brown leather, rather than the impermeable "syntactic foam" used today.
Astle was at risk since his club career with West Bromwich Albion peaked in the 1960s and he scored many of his 179 goals with his head.
His widow, Lorraine, likened heading the leather "casey" to heading a bag of bricks.
Mrs Astle told the court that her husband’s condition had slowly deteriorated since 1997. A brain scan revealed he had suffered an injury to the front part of his brain. "This would be the same part of the head that he used to head the ball during his playing career," she said.
The verdict is certain to re-ignite debate north and south of the Border and has disturbing financial implications for the football authorities. West Bromwich’s managing director, Brendon Batson, formerly worked for the Professional Footballers Association and helped the Astle family to prepare for the inquest.
He said there was "a wide implication for football" in the verdict. "There has been anecdotal evidence suggesting that players are having brain problems from being professional footballers," said Mr Batson.
There was now a proven link he added, though he warned: "This ruling is specific to Jeff."
Astle won an English FA Cup medal with his club in 1968, and reached the pinnacle of his career when he was named in the 1970 England World Cup squad.
He also enjoyed singing and went on to earn notoriety as a crooner on BBC2’s Fantasy Football League.
But as a young player, he had been coached at Notts County by Tommy Lawton, another prodigious header of a football, and his ability became the trademark of Astle’s game.
When he retired, the centre forward set up his own business, promoting himself with a slogan which played on his reputation in the air: "Jeff Astle window cleaning services - Jeff Astle never misses the corners."
More footballers could be victims
THE industrial disease which killed Jeff Astle could claim many more victims.
During the 1990s, the former Celtic player Billy McPhail developed symptoms of pre-senile dementia.
His family were convinced his condition was caused by head injuries sustained on the pitch.
McPhail claimed he was entitled to disability payments of 70-per-week at a benefit appeal tribunal, but lost his case, a decision upheld by the Social Security commissioner of Scotland.
McPhail - like Astle - made his name as a great header of the ball, and scored a headed hat-trick when his side beat Rangers 7-1 in the 1957 Scottish League Cup final.
But it seems the two players, like hundreds before them, suffered in an era when footballs were heavier than now.
Made at 1lb, absorbent leather footballs could double in weight during a rainy game, and it was not uncommon for players to be knocked out by the ball.
These days, the problem has receded, manufacturers insist, as absorbency and weight have been reduced.
However, Dr Ron Thomson, a ballistics expert in Glasgow University’s mechanical engineering department, recently compared the impact of the ball to "being hit by a good amateur boxer".