VETERAN players at Northwich’s highest ranked club are anxious about the long-term effect of heading the football repeatedly – even at semi-professional level.

The issue of dementia in former professional footballers hit national headlines again this month after Manchester United and England legend Sir Bobby Charlton became the fifth member of the 1966 World Cup winning squad to be diagnosed with the condition.

Northwich Guardian: Bobby Charlton

World Cup winner Sir Bobby Charlton has been diagnosed with dementia

But media scrutiny of the condition is leading players at the Northern Premier League’s Witton Albion to reflect on their own health and wellbeing.

“It’s worrying. It’s a serious illness at the end of the day,” said Rob Hopley, who is on dual registration with Winsford United while recovering from a serious knee injury.

“I’ve always been the target man – and playing in defence as well if needed – so heading is a big part of my game,” added the 35-year-old striker.

Northwich Guardian:

Rob Hopley in action for Witton Albion. Picture by Karl Brooks Photography

His concerns are shared by 37-year-old Steve McNulty, who joined Witton Albion at the start of the 2020/2021 season after making more than 600 appearances professionally and semi-professionally.

“It’d be stupid to brush it aside,” said the seasoned centre back, whose previous clubs include Barrow AFC, Fleetwood Town, Luton Town, Tranmere Rovers and York City.

“You don’t think about it when you’re playing the game you love. It doesn’t cross your mind until it comes to the forefront in the media. But then you sit back and think: ‘Is that going to happen to me?’ “Obviously, lower down the pyramid, you don’t see the fancy football you see in the Premier League, so I think we actually head the ball a lot more.”

If players like Hopley and McNulty develop dementia later in life, only those who played professionally will receive aid from the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA).

“Luckily, I’m a member. And once you’re a member, you’re a member for life,” said McNulty. “But there are a lot of players in non-league football who haven’t been fortunate enough to play professionally and be associated with the PFA.

“You see it with the ex-professionals who have died, and you don’t want it to happen, but they’ve got the money to get the best treatment and care.

“You look lower down the pyramid and players don’t have millions in the bank. There’s a big divide.”

Hopley is on the wrong side of this divide. “The ex-professionals get the PFA’s help, but the likes of me in the lower leagues would get no help whatsoever,” he said. “We would have to fend for ourselves.”