The cruel legacy for Hugh Ryden and his football brothers

I’m one of five brothers. The three of us who played got Alzheimer’s: The cruel legacy for Hugh Ryden – part of Chester’s Famous Five in the incredible 1964-65 season – and his football family

  • The two Ryden brothers who didn’t play have escaped Alzheimer’s disease
  • Their story is staggering, with the other three who played getting Alzheimer’s 
  • It provides a damning addition to the mounting evidence that there is a link between heading a football ball and neurodegenerative diseases
  • Hugh Ryden, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year, was part of Chester’s Famous Five
  • They were five forwards who netted more than 20 goals each in 1964-65 season

The facts are alarming. Three of the five Ryden brothers played professional football. Each of those three had, or has, Alzheimer’s disease. The two who didn’t play football have escaped the disease.

‘It’s as simple as that,’ says the youngest of that group, former Chester City, Bristol Rovers and Halifax Town striker Hugh. ‘It really is.’

Hugh’s wife, Susan, was moved to write to the letters page of this newspaper after reading about Sportsmail’s campaign calling on football to finally tackle its dementia scandal.

Hugh Ryden (pictured with his wife Susan) was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease last year

Hugh was part of Chester’s Famous Five during their incredible 1964-65 campaign

The family’s story is staggering. It provides a substantial and damning addition to the mounting evidence that there is a link between heading the ball and cruel, neurodegenerative diseases.

John was the eldest of the talented Dunbartonshire clan. He played for the likes of Tottenham and Accrington Stanley in the 1960s as a defender. He died in 2013 and the last decade of his life was dominated by Alzheimer’s.

‘Ironically, the order of service pictured him leading out Spurs while carrying the old-fashioned football linked to this terrible disease,’ Susan recalls.

Another brother, fellow centre half George, represented Dundee and St Johnstone and played in the 1964 Scottish Cup final. Now 80, he has had Alzheimer’s for 10 years and is being cared for by wife Lina.

Of the two who did not play football, Thomas died from circulatory problems in his 80s, while Edward, also in his 80s, has no history of the disease. Hugh, 77, was diagnosed last year.

‘The consultant told us that he is treating three other former professional footballers in the North West,’ says Susan. ‘He couldn’t really go much further, but that made the point.’

Unsurprisingly, both have no doubt what has caused this. ‘It’s obvious,’ says Hugh. ‘How do the three brothers who played get it and the two that didn’t, not? Heading the ball. They used to have it suspended on a rope in training. We would queue to head it. That old leather ball.’

Susan adds: ‘Almost every picture we have of Hugh in his playing days is him heading a ball.’

John Ryden, who played for Tottenham and Accrington Stanley, died in 2013 and the final decade of his life was dominated by Alzheimer’s

George Ryden (R), who played for Dundee and St Johnstone, has had Alzheimer’s for 10 years

Hugh is on good form. He was one of Chester’s Famous Five — five forwards who netted more than 20 goals each in an incredible 1964-65 season which saw the Fourth Division club score 151 times in all competitions.

‘I can name that team and my primary school team,’ he says. ‘Ask me what I did yesterday and I’m struggling. I get lots of anxiety and it’s worse at night when I have terrible dreams. I’m always looking for the car after I’ve parked it.

‘It’s terrible really, you can’t describe it.’

The couple live in Stockport, where Hugh ended his playing career before working as a car salesman for Ford. They have not contacted the much-maligned Professional Footballers’ Association, based in nearby Manchester, for assistance.

‘What’s the point?’ asks Susan. ‘John’s wife, Mary, tried to get help and she hit brick walls. She was told that she could not prove John’s Alzheimer’s was caused by playing football. Well, there are three of them who have it now.’

Hugh agrees. ‘I just can’t get my head around it,’ he says. ‘The most I was on was £25 a week and occasionally the chairman would stick you an extra fiver if he thought you’d played well. But I always paid my dues to the PFA, every month.

Hugh’s wife, Susan, wrote this letter to the Daily Mail telling the Ryden brothers’ story after following Sportsmail’s campaign calling on football to finally tackle its dementia scandal

‘There would not be a PFA without footballers and they should be supporting those in their hour of need. That’s why we paid in for all those years, isn’t it? (Chief executive) Gordon Taylor is on £2million a year. Where’s the help?’

Hugh played at Chester with Mike Sutton — the father of Sportsmail columnist Chris — who passed away over the festive period. ‘I remember Mike,’ he says, ‘a nice guy. What Chris is doing is brilliant.’ The couple back Sportsmail’s campaign and our call for the PFA to fund a period of respite care. ‘The people who suffer are the ones who look after you,’ says Hugh. ‘It would be nice for them to get out, do some shopping, see their friends and have a bit of a break.’

The Rydens have been moved by the plight of Nobby Stiles and the courage of his family, who donated the World Cup winner’s brain to Dr Willie Stewart’s ongoing study, which has already produced alarming findings.

‘We were going to get in touch but I thought, don’t bother, I was only lower division,’ says Hugh, who started his career at Leeds and turned down the opportunity to go to Spurs.

‘But it’s not right. We were doing our jobs and this has happened to us. My family’s experience makes it obvious.’

Chris Sutton’s father, Mike, passed away on Boxing Day after a long battle with dementia 

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