Feature special: Melton footballer channels sport in Alzheimer’s fight

Sporting memories are never far away in Carol and Steve's home EMN-190730-101701002
Sporting memories are never far away in Carol and Steve's home EMN-190730-101701002
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Frisby United against North Luffenham is a match that lives long in the memory of former local league footballer Steve Freer.

Lining up for his village side in the second week of the Melton and Rutland Sunday League season, its potential to earn 15 minutes of fame seemed limited at best.

The formidable Frisby United side of the 1970s, with Steve front row, right EMN-190730-101637002

The formidable Frisby United side of the 1970s, with Steve front row, right EMN-190730-101637002

But on September 16, 1979, the centre-half’s name was up in bold print, leading a page of a national Sunday newspaper.

His story had been pounced upon by a freelancer out collating local league results, who duly flogged it to the Sunday People.

“I got a hat-trick, but it was a hat-trick of red cards,” Steve explained.

“I was shown the third one for coming back on to the pitch and clearing the free-kick which had earned me my first red card.

With Hoby and Rotherby's Golding Cup winning side of 1995, front row, second from right EMN-190730-101625002

With Hoby and Rotherby's Golding Cup winning side of 1995, front row, second from right EMN-190730-101625002

“I got banned for eight weeks and for my first game back, guess who took the game? The same ref!

“I was famous for about two days!

“My mum got lots of calls from journalists over that, but she isn’t very good on the phone.

“She rang me up and said, ‘What have you been up to, Stephen?’”

Steve with the Melton Town CC side in the early 1970s EMN-190730-101649002

Steve with the Melton Town CC side in the early 1970s EMN-190730-101649002

Earlier this summer he was back in the national media spotlight again, 40 years on.

Steve and his wife Carol were invited to take part in a short film with Robbie Savage which appeared on the Daily Mail’s website.

As a lifelong Leicester City fan, the chance to meet a famous former Fox one-to-one sounds like a dream.

But Steve was chosen because he has dementia.

Steve makes the headlines with Thorpe Arnold CC EMN-190730-101726002

Steve makes the headlines with Thorpe Arnold CC EMN-190730-101726002

He was there to promote the work of the Alzheimer’s Society alongside Savage, who lost his father to Pick’s Disease, a form of dementia.

“Robbie was a really nice chap,” Steve said.

“He didn’t have very much time because he had another engagement to go to, but he was absolutely lovely.”

After several years of fearing the worst, hindered by a rapidly failing short and mid-term memory and plunging self-confidence, Steve was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in June 2018, at the untypically early age of 58.

He first began to notice changes following the shock and trauma of an unexpected redundancy in 2012.

The increasing struggles with memory and mind was a huge shift for someone who had called on these faculties so heavily, and reliably, during a long accountancy career.

Steve and Carl coached this Waltham Athletic side to the league and cup double EMN-190730-101712002

Steve and Carl coached this Waltham Athletic side to the league and cup double EMN-190730-101712002

In one particular set of exams he had finished second from an intake of 13,000.

“I began to forget things and struggle with anxiety and making decisions,” he said.

“You are not in control of your brain; it’s in control of you.

“Now if I’m asked a question I will probably get a little bit confused, but then 20 minutes later, or even hours later, it will come to me when I’m not thinking about it. It’s quite surreal.

“I have done the shopping all my life and never needed a list.

“Now I haven’t got a clue where anything is, and sometimes I forget I have a list in my pocket and what I’m doing there.

“I lost my car in Melton once and couldn’t remember where I parked it.

“We had to walk around Melton until I finally remembered. It’s quite debilitating.”

Yet despite facing daily challenges the uninitiated would struggle to imagine, time in Steve and his wife Carol’s company is far from gloomy.

The laughter may often be in the ‘if you don’t, you’ll cry’ vein, but when life chooses to inflict its dark humour on you, it’s important to laugh back at it.

Steve, for most of his life a reliable batsman in the summer and no-nonsense defender in the winter, is well aware that he and his family face an uncertain future.

But if the situation serves anything, it has focussed his mind on cherishing the present and wringing every possible drop out of life.

It’s a perspective many of us who treat good health and normality with complacency and complaint could learn from.

“I can sense things are happening which probably weren’t happening before,” he said.

“But we have got to try to do as much as we can and enjoy the moment.

“We have two wonderful supportive sons Lee and Ben, and two cherished grandchildren who help us do this.

“I have learned not to get depressed by it and just to make the best of things.

“I could be like this for two, three or four years, or I could still be sat talking like this in eight years’ time.”

An introduction to the Alzheimer’s Society has brought about a big improvement in outlook for both husband and wife.

“I think we are both dealing with it better now than we were last year,” he added.

“I was pretty down last year and toying with moving, but then we got involved with the Alzheimer’s Society and began doing things again.”

The charity provides Steve with a weekly support group, medical and practical advice, help with self-esteem - and equally importantly, it provides much-needed respite for Carol.

He has also helped with research and was happy to help promote the charity’s work through the online video.

Steve no longer hides away from friends and life, embarrassed and frightened of revealing his dementia to the world.

“Without the Alzheimer’s Society I would be private and miserable,” he said.

“I wouldn’t have been talking to you now if it hadn’t have been for them. This time last year I wouldn’t even go out.

“They are extremely caring. There is nothing out there really if you are in your 50s and have dementia.”

Sportsman’s knee ended his club cricket career in his early 50s, a decade or so after a head injury scuppered the football, but sport remains an important anchor in their lives.

It provides focus, as well as much-needed joy, amid the blur of dementia.

“Doing sport is still something I get a lot of pleasure out of.

“I started playing tennis about three-and-a-half years ago and I’m a different person when I’m playing.

“I know what I’m doing and I’m really confident again.”

Non-believers sometimes dismiss sport as frivolous, but it can be a hugely important tool for life.

For Steve and Carol it is central in their tactics to combat the depression that living with dementia can bring.

Since working with the society, Steve has returned to the golf course, plays petanque for his local pub and intends to have a go at walking football.

Remarkably, he has even seen some improvements in his sporting abilities since his diagnosis.

“One of the strange things with dementia is that it affects a lot of stuff in your life, but there have been some positives.

“I’ve never been able to get below 100 in golf, but a few weeks ago I went round in 96 at Rutland, so my eye-hand co-ordination is still good.

“The other week, my tennis was outstanding, I don’t think I’ve played better.

“And for the last two weeks my petanque has been exceptional.”

Like playing, following sport is another valuable form of escapism.

Steve remains a City season-ticket holder, but can no longer attend matches alone, and the once-regular away trips are now much scarcer.

Yet the buzz of going to the match remains, although details of the game can become sketchy.

The enduring mystery of the disease is that it can provide easier access to the long-term memory than the short.

It can be a challenge to remember the score on the way home, while matches from decades ago remain in sharper focus.

And when that, too, fails, a large collection of programmes and a specially-collated laptop database, becomes a reliable aide memoire.

“I have always been extremely anal in terms of detail with my work and with football.

“I have hundreds of programmes going back, including from Leicester’s first FA Cup final in 1949, and they do help me.

“The first match I went to with my dad was Leicester against Man City, and Allan Clarke scored a hat-trick.

“I stood on the Popular side, as it was at the time, where you’d have home fans and away fans mixed together.

“That for me was a major game.”

And then there was playing.

Turning out on both Saturday and Sunday for an impressive array of teams, football has dominated life since Steve’s senior debut for Syston St Peters FC as a teenager.

He was good enough to represent his region in schools football, and became a regular face in the defences of a successful Frisby United side and Senior League club Pedigree Petfoods.

Cherished times remain fresh memories.

“I looked at a Frisby team photo last week from 40 years ago and I could still name everyone on it apart from two.

“I bumped into Mezz Watchorn and Mick Curtis at Melton Golf Club the other week - three of our back four from 1978!”

Even after the boots were unlaced for the final time, football remained a family fixture.

As their sons Lee and Ben followed their dad onto the pitch, Steve and Carol went into management and coaching.

Believing they could do no worse than what they had seen available to their children, the couple set up their first junior team in Oxford and then transferred the model when they moved back home to Waltham.

Their time with Waltham Athletic, from under 9s through to under 17s, still holds fond memories for both husband and wife, including two Grantham League titles, and a league and cup double.

While football dominated two-thirds of the year, Steve was part of a waning tradition among grassroots sportsmen who doubled up with a season full of cricket.

He turned out for Hoby and Rotherby CC on a Sunday from a teenager well into his 30s, and on Saturdays for Melton Town, in two spells, either side of a move across town to Thorpe Arnold.

“I played cricket all my life and always wanted to play in the same team as my two sons.

“It was a big moment for me when we did that at Thorpe.”

Today, visitors to the Freers’ Saltby home can still read all about his flirtation with the national media, his brush with fame captured for posterity in monochrome newsprint.

The page from the national tabloid hangs proudly in their entrance hall, framed as a 50th birthday gift from Carol.

The most enduring part of Steve’s well-polished retelling of that tale is not in its obvious humour, but in what it signifies.

While the fleeting minutiae of everyday life washes through our sieve-like minds, the smallest details of our passions are caught and stored.

As fresh in the memory as though we had lived them the day before.

By its very nature, sport can be frivolous, even ridiculous, but it’s never just a game.

“I don’t think I have dementia when I play golf or tennis.

“For that three-hour period I can behave like a normal person.

“But I tell whoever I’m playing it’s no good asking me for the score!