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Video and photo gallery: Wife’s heartbreak at Norwich City legend Duncan Forbes’ fight with Alzheimer’s disease

PUBLISHED: 14:08 17 October 2013 | UPDATED: 14:19 18 October 2013

Norwich City legend Duncan Forbes on Mousehold Heath where in his time as a player he used to train.  Photo: Simon Finlay

Norwich City legend Duncan Forbes on Mousehold Heath where in his time as a player he used to train. Photo: Simon Finlay

Archant © 2008

Norwich City legend Duncan Forbes took pride in being able to memorise the results of every English football league match after viewing them just the once on a Saturday afternoon.

Norwich footballer Duncan Forbes Norwich footballer Duncan Forbes

However, his wife knew there was something seriously wrong when the former player and chief scout could not remember that his beloved team had played two days earlier on a Monday morning six years ago.

The former central defender fought many battles on the football pitch, but his biggest fight has been with dementia after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2007.

His wife, Janette, spoke of her devastation yesterday after having to put her husband in a Norwich care home because she could no longer care for him at their Thorpe St Andrew home.

The 72-year-old, who retired from Norwich City 12 years ago after more than 30 years of dedicated service as a player and member of staff, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six years ago.

Duncan’s distinguished career

Duncan Forbes was born in Edinburgh, but spent the majority of his career in Norfolk and served 33 years with Norwich City as a player and a member of staff.

The central defender joined the Canaries in 1968 from Colchester United, forming a formidable partnership with Dave Stringer. He made 357 appearances for the club, scoring 12 times and was never sent off during his 13-year playing career. He was captain of the City team that won promotion to the top flight for the first time in 1972.

After retiring from first-team football, he took charge of Club Canary, which organised trips to away matches. In March 1988 he became chief scout and retired in May 2001.

Mrs Forbes, 68, yesterday called on dementia patients and their carers to receive more help and support after she battled for two years to get a diagnosis for her husband. She added that Mr Forbes first started displaying the symptoms of the disease when he was 64.

“I can not give any examples, but I knew something was wrong because he would say irrational things as well as forgetting things. We went to the doctor and he said that everyone gets forgetful when they get old and I do not think GPs know enough about dementia,” she said.

A mental health doctor from the Julian Hospital in Norwich came to see him and did some tests and Mrs Forbes asked him for another assessment after a particular incident six years ago.

“It was a Monday morning and Norwich had played on the Saturday. I can’t remember if it was at home or away and Duncan did not know they had played. When he was young he would read the four divisions scores and he could tell anyone the scores after reading them once. This time he did not know that Norwich had played at all,” she said.

Heading concerns

Duncan Forbes was a tough central defender who was not afraid of heading the ball. But his wife believes that the constant heading of a football during his long professional career was a contributory factor to him getting dementia. Janette Forbes said: “I do not think heading footballs helped. He used to head medicine balls in training, because if you could head one of those, you could head a football further – that is like being repeatedly punched. Duncan had been playing since he was a kid and I do not think he played with the really heavy leather balls with laces, but they were heavier than the ones they play with today.
“The authorities would never admit it because it would open the floodgates and I think there are a lot of ex professional players with Alzheimer’s.”

A coroner ruled in 2002 that former England and West Bromwich Albion footballer Jeff Astle, 59, – a prolific header of the ball – died from dementia which was brought on by repeatedly heading the ball. Coroner Andrew Haigh said that the repeated contact with a heavy leather ball in the 1960s caused brain trauma similar to that of a boxer. Mr Astle’s family has been unsuccessful in getting compensation from the FA, despite the coroner’s findings.

Mrs Forbes said she did not immediately tell friends about her husband’s condition because of the stigma surrounding dementia. She added that she found it difficult to get information and support from local charities and health services.

“There was no back-up and I felt I had been cast adrift in a sea and I found that I had to find things out for myself.”

“At first I struggled along and when we met people in the city, I prompted him about football, but eventually I had to tell people about the Alzheimer’s. Because of the stigma surrounding dementia I did not tell people to start with, but it is not his fault.”

“Duncan did not realise what Alzheimer’s was. Even if we saw a programme on television about it, he did not relate that it was the same thing he was going through. The last three years got really bad and we started doing less and less. We no longer went to the pictures or went to the Cromer Pier show or the Thursford Spectacular and life was getting more curtailed.”

Alzheimer’s facts

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, affecting around 496,000 people in the UK, according to the Alzheimer’s Society.

People in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease may experience lapses of memory and have problems finding the right words. As the disease progresses, they may become confused and frequently forget the names of people, places, appointments and recent events, experience mood swings, feel sad or angry, or scared and frustrated by their increasing memory loss, become more withdrawn, and have difficulty carrying out everyday activities.

So far, no one single factor has been identified as a cause for Alzheimer’s disease. It is likely that a combination of factors, including age, genetic
inheritance, environmental factors, lifestyle and overall general health, are responsible.

If you are worried that you have the symptoms of dementia, contact your local GP.

For more information about the disease, visit

“Up until five years ago we went on holiday to see our son in Spain and we stopped going to Scotland 18 months ago because we had a problem on the plane and he wanted to get off before the plane stopped. I stopped taking him to the football about two years ago because it was difficult and at half time he thought it was finished. He sometimes watches the games and he can still kick a ball about, but can not turn around when the ball goes behind him,” she said.

Mrs Forbes will help open a new Age UK Norwich shop and advice centre in London Street, Norwich, at 2pm today along with ex-City manager and player Dave Stringer, who has been Mr Forbes’ friend throughout.

The father-of-two and grandfather-of-five had been using the Age UK-run Marion Road day care centre for three days a week before moving to a Norwich care home ten weeks ago and went to the monthly Pabulum cafe in Costessey, which is also organised by the charity.

Mrs Forbes added that she had found it extremely hard to put her husband into a care home.

“Some days he is better, but he has gone downhill since last Christmas. I think he knows who I am, but I do not know if he knows who his sons are. He can not hold a conversation. In the care home he still goes up to people and shakes people’s hands and is still friendly and he was always a people person. There is still a little bit there.”

“He was not a smoker and was not a big drinker and kept himself fit and healthy. If someone like him can get Alzheimer’s it could happen to anyone. Age UK were very good when he was in the day centre and the Pabulum cafe had people coming to speak to carers, which was very helpful,” she said.

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