Stirring memories only football can provide



AT THE end – actually, after the end – of Alloa Athletic’s 3-1 defeat at Falkirk on Saturday, something special happened.


Cowdenbeath’s goal in the 74th minute of their game against Queen of the South had placed Alloa in the Championship’s relegation play-off place. As the players trudged off, they were still there. Then, the small band of Alloa fans went bonkers. News of a 95th-minute leveller for Queens had reached them, and saved Alloa’s place in next season’s second tier – which will include fallen giants Rangers and Hearts.


Alloa goalkeeper Scott Bain, who had been halfway up the tunnel, came charging back, right across the pitch and launched himself into the fans. They were joined by the manager Barry Smith and the rest of the players. By that point there were about as many members of the playing and coaching staff of Alloa in there as there were supporters, and none of them is likely to forget the moment.


The game at the Falkirk Stadium was the first to be played under the banner of Football Memories – the Scottish charity that uses football stories and images to help people with dementia. Falkirk supporters wore their favourite old strips; a gang of former players, from the 1950s through to the 1980s, came on the pitch at half-time; there were collection buckets around the ground.


Football Memories started in 2004 in Falkirk, and although great progress has been made in the project’s reach and resources since then, the core focus remains the same: volunteer-led meetings where people with Alzheimer’s and other memory issues use football memorabilia to stimulate discussion about their memories of the game. Was Lawrie Reilly a better centre-forward than Willie Bauld? How many of Hearts’ Terrible Trio would get into Hibs’ Famous Five? What was the best goal you saw? Who was the toughest player? The best pub to go to before the game?


These discussions can involve people – usually men – in the later stages of dementia, who struggle to communicate with members of their immediate family, yet when it comes to the deep memories carved out by a lifetime following their football team, they can still get to those magical moments.


On the website built to promote the charity – – the banner quote is from a carer of one of the clients: “I come here with this sad person with dementia, and I take home my husband.”


“The change is not permanent,” says Michael White, who founded the project and has led its development nationwide through a partnership with Alzheimer Scotland, “but for a while people who have become completely withdrawn improve their communication after these groups. That helps them feel better, it gives them confidence, and it can be a real comfort for the people looking after them.”


There are now 85 groups all over Scotland, many associated with professional clubs. White has been visited by academics and health professionals from Spain, Italy and the United States, where staff at the University of Connecticut are developing the project for fans of baseball, basketball, ice hockey and American football. Here the project has branched out to rugby, shinty and cricket, with social media pages linking up the different groups. At Football Memories meetings there are photographs and something like the old cigarette cards – specially produced images of players, including career information, which are used for “dream team” debates, or the equivalent of the kind of Saturday night pub rows familiar to any football fan.


Last Saturday’s game may become a regular thing – White hopes that the SPFL will connect Football Memories with one matchday next season, giving it exposure all across Scotland and providing a way for families who are, or who will be, experiencing dementia to use football as a way to cope with the devastating change it brings.


“Our hope is that, in Scotland, it becomes something like the Show Racism the Red Card campaign,” said White. “One day in each season, every club gets the message out to its supporters that if you or someone you know is struggling with their memory, they can go to a local meeting and talk about something that is important to them, and something they are still confident talking about. The more clubs get on board the better the experience is.”


What memories will stir today’s football supporters 40 or 50 years from now? From Barcelona to the Blue Brazil, there is more to remember than ever before. But show any of the 50 or 60 Alloa supporters who were at Falkirk at the weekend a picture of Scott Bain jumping into their arms and they will be transported back to the kind of moment only football can give you.

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