Football's battle with dementia: Rotherham icon Breckin leads the way

MIKE KEEGAN: John Breckin is a shining example of how football’s memory men ARE making a difference… his thriving support group for former stars with dementia needs to be followed

  • Rotherham legend John Breckin is doing his bit in football’s dementia fight
  • Breckin remembers endless bouts of heading practice on winter afternoons 
  • He now leads the Millers Memory club helping former stars who are affected 
  • PFA representative and former player Paul Raven has also helped with funding 

There are six members of the team who played Aston Villa in the first League Cup final in 1961 remaining,’ says Rotherham United legend John Breckin, voice full of South Yorkshire pride.

He finishes his sentence: ‘Three of them have it.’

There are others. Many others. Breckin rattles off the names of men he played with at his beloved Millmoor and elsewhere. Some are still grappling with dementia, others are no longer suffering. ‘Trevor Womble,’ he says.

John Breckin (back row, fourth from right) poses for a photograph alongside the Millers Memory club – an initiative helping those who have been impacted by dementia in football

‘He’s struggling. We lost Rodney Fern at 69. Ernie Moss who I played with at Doncaster has gone. Jimmy Goodfellow passed away. Dave Watson now — I was his apprentice and I cleaned his boots, John Haselden, Neil Hague down in Plymouth — his wife was on the other day, Dave Cusack is in the early stages, Lol Morgan too.’

Others crop up throughout the conversation. So many that Breckin, 68, a life president at Rotherham, decided to do something about it. 

‘We started doing Zooms in lockdown,’ he explains. ‘That turned into get-togethers at the club. We’ve had five Millers Memory Club meetings now and we’re having a Christmas party next month.’

With absolutely no disrespect intended, many of those Breckin refers to will not be recognisable names to many readers. But it does not make their story any less important than those of the household names struck down by the scourge of football, their lives not as valued. 

Breckin (left) has had a long career in football but is now focusing on matters of the mind

Indeed, some believe that those who plied their trade in the lower leagues, where the ball tended to spend more time in the air, could be at even greater risk of developing neuro-degenerative diseases.

Breckin, who was assistant to ex-Millers, Oldham, Tranmere and Hartlepool boss Ronnie Moore, remembers endless bouts of heading practice on winter afternoons.

‘Jim McGuigan was great for me as a manager for eight years but there were days when we’d cringe,’ he recalls. 

‘He’d say, “Right… back four in” and we’d look at each other, knowing what was coming. Seamus McDonagh, the keeper, would put snow on them. 

‘One of us would go and attack it and the other three would drop for cover. “Breck’s ball!” You’d have a session of that for 20 minutes. I’d bet there’d be 40 headers in the session and you’d do that once a fortnight — more if he thought we’d let a few in.

‘We’d do crossing and finishing every week. More headers. It was part and parcel. You wanted to improve your heading. There’s an art to it. As an apprentice, at 15, you had heading practice.

‘In the gym, heading against the wall. Heading it back and forward 100 times getting the technique. If you caught one wrong you’d see stars and the other players would laugh.’

Then there were the concussions. ‘I was knocked out in an FA Cup game, playing for Neil Warnock at Burton,’ Breckin says. ‘I woke up in hospital, six stitches in the back of my head.

‘The lad from Stevenage who I’d collided with going up for a header was in the next bed. I played the following Saturday!

‘You did do that, though. In those days a bit lower down, they left you on if you’d taken a bang on the head because the manager’s job was at stake.

“They’ve got to mark you”, they’d say. “Stand on the wing, be a nuisance”. The medical help was the trainer who’d probably done a first aid course.’

Breckin and his pals were willing. ‘You didn’t want to come out of the team,’ he explains. ‘You got your appearance and bonus which was more than your basic. You didn’t want to come off. If someone comes in and plays well that’s you out. You stayed on.’

Many with that attitude now attend the Millers Memory Club. ‘A couple of businesses have come on board to help, so if anyone can’t afford to get here we can get a taxi,’ Breckin says.

‘We have old programmes, games on the TV. You see triggers that get them involved. We’re going to start playing bingo and cards for a couple of hours and see where it takes us.’

PFA representative and former player Paul Raven has also helped with funding, along with the club’s community arm. The hope is to expand it further and get the competitive juices flowing again.

‘South Yorkshire is a close network,’ Breckin says, a glint in his eye. ‘We’ve got Barnsley, the Sheffield clubs, Doncaster. It’d be great to have a game of cards, snooker with them. Let’s see where it goes.’

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