Frank Kopel’s wife battling for dementia care

Dementia sufferer Frank Kopel’s wife Amanda is campaigning for free care, regardless of age

Dementia sufferer Frank Kopel’s wife Amanda is campaigning for free care, regardless of age

EVERY now and then Amanda Kopel will sit down with her husband, Frank, and show him footage of his volleyed equaliser against Anderlecht in 1979. With only a few minutes left in Brussels, and Dundee United needing an away goal to stay in the UEFA Cup, suddenly there is a break down the left. “A very brave run here by Paul Sturrock to the goal-line,” says Archie Macpherson in the commentary. “He’s got to have support, and he does… from Frank Kopel… wooofff… that really is one of the best goals I’ve ever seen in Europe.”

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Until recently, that brought a smile to Frank’s face, a wee flicker of recognition, but not any more. Now, there is only a blank stare, just as there is when Amanda digs out her scrapbook detailing a proud career dominated by his decade at Dundee United, which culminated in the League Cup triumphs of 1979 and 1980.

Frank Kopel, 64, suffers from dementia. He is one of the 800,000 people in Britain whose battle with the degenerative brain condition finally has been thrust into the political spotlight. At last week’s G8 conference in London, where it was described as a “runaway human tragedy”, David Cameron, the prime minister, promised a “global fightback” and a cure by 2025. Dementia, they say, should be tackled in the same way as cancer and HIV, but forgive Amanda if she is not hanging out the bunting. “All of a sudden, they’re coming out of the woodwork,” she says. “They say they’re going to put money into research, but where have they been for the last ten or 15 years? They knew there was a crisis facing them. It’s too late for a lot of people.”

Frank was diagnosed with vascular dementia five years ago, since when his life with Amanda has been turned upside down. As his health has declined, she has looked after him as best she can, spent hundreds of pounds every month on professional help and, in the last year, campaigned for a change to the law, which denies free care to sufferers under the age of 65. “Does it matter what date is on your birth certificate?” she asks. “It’s the same disease, regardless of your age.”

In September, she made her case to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee. Last week, she met Alex Neil, the Health Secretary, who agreed to visit the Kirriemuir couple early next year. If she wins her political battle, it will be too late for Frank, who turns 65 in March, but not for the thousands of other young sufferers and carers. “I’m very, very hopeful,” she says. “You never know, we may not win this thing, but what we have done is raise awareness. We’ve got everybody talking.”

Frank Kopel’s Alzheimer’s Awareness Campaign is on Facebook. An auction at a fundraising dance in Forfar included everything from Lorraine Kelly’s favourite dress to a water colour painting of Paul Sturrock. Next up is a raffle that will include donations from his former clubs, including Manchester United, and a tangerine “Arrow in Anderlecht” T-shirt, signed by the man himself.

A friend of the couple has written a song and recorded it on a CD, the proceeds from which will go to Alzheimer’s Scotland. It is an ode to Frank by Amanda, whose memories her husband no longer shares. Like the Falkirk street where they both grew up. Or their first kiss, as kids in a game of postman’s knock. And their first date, a match between Stirling Albion and Alloa Athletic. When Frank told her he wanted to be a footballer, she replied: “Aye, but what do you want to do for a job?”

Kopel’s football career started with Manchester United, for whom he made 12 appearances, one of which, oddly enough, was against Anderlecht. Then he had two years with Blackburn Rovers, where he also struggled to make an impact.

The turning point in his career came when Amanda, at home while Frank was training with Blackburn, took a call from Jim McLean on Hogmanay 1971. By New Year’s Day 1972, they were back in Scotland. Kopel was the United manager’s first signing. “When I saw how unfit he was, I wondered if I would have been better signing his wife,” McLean told the local paper.

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Kopel, though, turned out to be a stalwart of the McLean era. His debut against Morton on 29 January 1972 was the first of 407 appearances for United, a tally exceeded by only ten players in the club’s history. He scored 13 goals for them, but it was his reliability as their first-choice left-back that made him popular. Off the pitch, he was a shy, unassuming lad. On it, he was just as selfless, the ultimate players’ player.

He appeared in two Scottish Cup finals, one of them the club’s first, and helped to spare United relegation in 1976. He rarely let them down, although his penalty against Aberdeen at Tannadice brings a smile to Amanda’s face. When no other player moved forward to collect the ball, Frank stepped up to the spot, at which point she rose from her seat in the main stand and screamed “Naw, he cannae take penalties”. Sure enough, he missed it. Amanda left the ground in tears, which prompted another United fan to ask after her. When it was explained to him who she was, he muttered: “I’d be bloody greeting tae if I was his wife.”

Deservedly, Kopel’s long United career finished with two League Cup winner’s medals, both of them secured at Dens Park, against Aberdeen and Dundee respectively. They were his proudest moments, together with the day he was asked by a group of fans if they could name their supporters club after him. So humbled was he by the gesture that he gave them the strip he wore in the final against Dundee. For years, it has hung in the city’s Snug Bar, base for Frank Kopel’s Travelling Shindig Club, which is still going strong. “At the moment, we’ve got the strip at home because of the way things are going,” says Amanda. “We bring it out every so often to let him see it. They’ll get it back, though.”

Frank’s illness was diagnosed in 2008, but he is likely to have had it for a year or two before that. Amanda often asks herself why. Is it genetic? Was football a contributory factor? She may never know. “He didn’t smoke, he ate healthily, he drank socially, but not excessively. He swam twice a day. He was a very, very fit man, a professional footballer.”

He was also too young. All the leaflets Amanda read, all the DVDs she watched, had pictures of the elderly and frail, but she knows now the condition can afflict those in the prime of their lives. She is full of praise for the professionals who have supported them these last few years, but little things, like the music they play in respite care, suggest that younger sufferers are overlooked. “Frankie likes Deacon Blue, Neil Diamond and The Proclaimers. He doesn’t want to listen to Scottish country dance music or somebody singing The Old Rugged Cross.”

Amanda had been told what to expect as the condition worsened but the first time Frank turned to his wife and asked her where she lived, it was a “knife through her heart”. When she produced photos of their wedding in 1969, a broad grin spread across his face. “That’s Amanda,” he said. “That’s me,” she replied, but it was too much for him to understand.

Some of his former team-mates are regulars at Frank’s Kirriemuir home. Hamish McAlpine, John Reilly, Dave Narey, John Holt. They all pay frequent visits but, for some of them, it can be upsetting. He has forgotten too much now. How good a player he was. How good a man he is. How to walk. How to eat. How to live.

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“It pains me to say it, but time is running out,” says Amanda. “His deterioration is very rapid now. What I’m trying to do [with the campaign] is not going to help Frankie but, if it benefits other people by making their quality of life that bit better, it will have been worth it.”

The one consolation is that, while Frank does not remember, a generation of United fans do. To them, he is the frizzy-haired left-back who scored one of their greatest goals. “To me,” says Amanda, “he is just Frankie. My husband, my best friend, my soulmate. He is just Frankie. The boy I grew up with.”