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Astle, the man: Life after Albion

8 April 2015

The Astle family lift the lid on Jeff's post-Albion years

ALBION fans know all about Jeff Astle's achievements as a Baggies footballer.

But what happened away from The Hawthorns? We caught up with Jeff's widow Laraine and daughters Dawn and Claire at their Derbyshire home to find out what happened after he left Albion in 1974.

This interview includes a candid insight into how Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy impacted on Jeff and the Astle family.

Q. Laraine, tell us about Mexico 1970 and Jeff's time with England?
A. I remember it well. There was the whole incident with Bobby Moore and the bracelet in Bogota before the World Cup which caused a big fuss [the England captain was accused of stealing a bracelet]. Bobby was my favourite player - he was a lovely guy. When Jeff first played for England he was actually nervous - one of the few times I'd seen that. What people don't realise is that when Bobby walked along the line and introduced the dignitaries to the players, Jeff could hear Bobby saying: "And here's Percy Banks our goalkeeper...and here's Charlie's Freddy Astle...". Jeff said he had to bite the inside of his mouth to stop himself from laughing. But it removed the fear and nerves. Jeff was heartbroken when Bobby died...
As for the World Cup, Jeff got a lot of criticism for that miss against Brazil. What people don't realise is that he and the other players who weren't playing were sat on the benches in the full glare of the sun. There was no shade and no thought given to the players' health. They were all nodding off because it was so hot. So Jeff went on and the next minute that chance came about and he missed. But it made no difference. We still got through to the next round. After that, whenever Jeff got reminded about it he always replied: "Yeah, but I didn't miss the one in the Cup Final did I...?"

Q. Jeff left Albion in 1974. What did he do after that?
A. We went to Dunstable, where Barry Fry was manager. Barry sometimes played, which used to amuse Jeff! We had some laughs there. From there he went to Atherstone and then Weymouth. After that he started a window cleaning and carpet cleaning business. He did that with Graham Carr, Alan Carr's dad - Graham is now a successful scout at Newcastle of course. He thought that would look after him, while football wouldn't. He took to playing more cricket after that too. When he signed for Notts County he actually had an offer from Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club too. Cricket was his first love. Had he been alive now and had a choice of watching a big football match or a big cricket match, he'd have gone for cricket every time.

Q. We're here because of the Astle Foundation. When did you first realise Jeff was ill? How did it impact on you?
A. It was during the filming of Fantasy Football during the last 1990s when Jeff was doing his 'Jeff Astle Sings' bit. We had a tape recorder in the dressing room but had no idea what he was singing until we got there. They would give us this song and it would be a background tape of music. We would have the words and sing to this backing tape. So he'd sing something in the dressing room perfectly...then he would forget it when he came to open it. I never thought it would be what it was. Because we were travelling down all the time we used to spend a long day away, along with the travelling. I just thought that because it was live then it was maybe too much for him. 
And then not long afterwards we went away to Ibiza and it was the holiday from hell. Normally Jeff and I would sit in the sun and chill from the moment we get up to when they throw us out - it's what we always liked to do. Yet on this holiday within two minutes Jeff would want to walk somewhere. This particular beach was as long as the eye can see. It was July and very hot - here we were walking up and down that promenade. It was like he had to be doing something. I knew that wasn't Jeff... 
That was 1997. When he got home he levelled out. And what I only found out later is that this was a symptom - they would only get comfortable when they found themselves somewhere they knew. He still had the odd memory lapse but he was generally ok but I knew there was something wrong. 
Eventually I got him to go to the doctors - I said 'do it for me's upsetting me Jeff'. The doctor sat him down and told him an address: "Mr and Mrs Smith, Blackpool Street, County Durham." He remembered that. Then he was asked to tap a pencil on the desk. Jeff was giving me daggers at this point because he was adamant he was fine...he did this for about 5-10 minutes. And then the doctor asked him for that name and address. He couldn't remember a word of it.

(Dawn): When Matthew was born he kept asking “what's his name again?” I had to repeat it. When he finally remembered it and I said "You remembered it, dad". He said: "It's Matthew...I had to think of Stanley Matthews." That's how he remembered it. He had to remember something from way back to help him.

Q. The illness had a profound impact on your lives.
A. (Laraine): From the minute he was diagnosed he got worse very quickly. You couldn't take him out anywhere. He became a complete stranger. By the end he was quiet, he walked with a stoop, he went grey. My dad died at 90 and yet, by the end when he was just 59-years-old, Jeff looked older than my dad did at 90 - that's no word of a lie. Within weeks of him being diagnosed we couldn't go anywhere. Our life changed in the blink of an eye because Jeff's illness was very aggressive. A month after going to the doctors we couldn't go out. It was very distressing. We couldn't go to the Albion. He couldn't drive - which was tough as I had to hide the car keys. We couldn't go for walks because he'd stop a stranger and tell them a joke or he'd sing at the top of his voice in Russian or another foreign language. I had to change my car because he would try to open the door, without any concept of it being dangerous - so I needed one I could lock from where I was sat. I had to remove the knives because he would grab the blades when it picked them up. I had to move them somewhere else - knowing Jeff wouldn't go there because he had no knowledge of them being there, so he wouldn't think of looking there. Then the eating disorder kicked in where I couldn't defrost anything because if I turned my back he'd try to eat it. Or he'd plunge his hands into the cornflakes. Or scoop butter up and eat that. He’d get upset stomachs because of the food he was eating. This illness made him the total opposite because his table manners were always so impeccable - he was a stickler for behaving well at the table yet here he was trying to eat other people's food. The illness made Jeff into a stranger. His hands started to shake too. And then from wanting to be out of the house, he'd want to lock himself in the house. 
I remember Bobby Hope wanted to visit Jeff. One of their former team-mates had been to see Jeff a few days earlier and said to Bobby: "Bob, please don't'll break your heart. Remember him as you saw him..." We had to lie. I make no apologies for that. We had to, to protect his dignity.

(Dawn): Because he was always there as a fan it became difficult. People used to ask me, “where's your dad?”. I'd reply: “He's in the press box...”. The next week I'd say "he's sat over there today...” I used to dread people coming up to me to ask why dad wasn’t with me.

Q. He died at 59...
A. (Dawn interjects) People thought he died of a heart attack, but he didn't. 

A. (Laraine). I lost my mum eight days before I lost Jeff. We had the funeral on the Thursday. Jeff collapsed and died on the Saturday - in front of the whole family. It was on Dawn's birthday too...God it was just awful. He actually choked to death. He put too much in his mouth and was sick...and he choked as a result of that. 
My poor dad. I was here to look after my dad after my mum died. Instead he ended up being sat with me all night, looking after me...

A. (Dawn): They took him to hospital. The phone went, my sister Dorice answered it. I call still picture it now - with the phone to her ear I just heard her say: "Ok, ok...ok bye." She looked at me and said: "Dad's died." With CTE there was no hope. There was no cure. It lasted five years with dad.

Q. Tell us about your dad? When did you realise he was Jeff Astle?
A. (Claire): With me, people would ask me what it was like to have Jeff as my dad...but I'd just say 'he's my dad'. The minute we got out of the car at the football people would stop to chat. He would stop for everyone. But the thing that made me realise that he was famous was Fantasy Football on BBC. I was about 18 at the time and it was completely weird for me - my dad singing on national TV on a show watched by millions. I used to work in the Malt Shovel in Great Barr at the time and it would come on just at the end of my shift. That bloody music would come on and I'd be like "right, everyone out...quick, someone turn the telly off!"

A. (Dawn): We used to turn up to games in this rickety old van he used for window cleaning, with 'Jeff Astle never misses the corners' on the back of it. I was so embarrassed because the ladders would be clattering on the top of the van and you could hear us coming. We never had tickets but he'd go to the old guy on the gate, put his thumb up and we'd be let into the car park. You'd be opposite the entrance waiting to go up and then someone would stop dad. And then another person. Then another. We'd be there for ages. I hate missing the start of games but he would insist on signing every autograph. And then we'd have the 'Mission: Impossible' saga of getting to our seat. Any seat we could find. We'd go through the glass doors, up the stairs, down to where the players were, and from there we'd have to scuttle down the stand and then we'd look for an empty seat and pray to God you weren't in anyone's seat. On the way out Jeff would sometimes dip into the skip - with permission of the kitman - and he'd pull me out a shirt. I remember once he pulled out a No5 and I must have had a little moan. He said: "I don't have time to look at the bloody numbers!" 
I remember the day of his funeral. I got to Netherseal and I kept seeing loads of cars. I was thinking “for God's sake, today of all days something's going on”....and then I pulled up  someone had attached something to the lamppost. I looked closely and it said: "We will never forget you Jeff." And then I clocked the West Brom shirt. That's when it hit me: "'It's 8am on a Wednesday, in a sleepy village...and all these fans are here for dad." That's when I realised.

Q. Laraine, finally, how would he liked to have been remembered?
A: For what he was. A hero to the fans. A man who loved football and West Bromwich Albion. 
It was strange when we opened the Astle Gates after he died. They were closed - they're very heavy as it happens. I turned, I cut the ribbon and then I turned to the cameras and the gates opened on their own. It wasn't windy yet these wrought iron gates opened on their own...and I'm sure to this day that was Jeff looking down and saying "these are my gates...I'm going in first."
In the 54 years when he wasn't poorly, Jeff had a fantastic life. He played for a club where he was loved and a club he loved. He scored the winning goal in an FA Cup Final, won medals and played in a World Cup for his country. West Bromwich Albion and the supporters meant everything to him. When he scored that FA Cup Final goal...the first thing he did was run straight to the fans. He always said that goal was for them. And it was. would like to thank the Astle family for their kind hospitality. Please follow @JeffAstleFdn.

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