AS he looks back on a lifetime immersed in football, Paul Bielby is well placed to take a view on the dark cloud hanging over the national game – the mounting scientific evidence of a connection between heading and dementia.

As a 17-year-old, Paul made his first-team debut with Manchester United in a local derby against Manchester City. Now, as a 64-year-old grandfather-of-four, he’s still dedicating his time to coaching juniors with dreams of playing for England.

Having rubbed shoulders with greats like George Best, Denis Law, and Sir Bobby Charlton, and now in his 24th year of running the Paul Bielby Football Academy, in Darlington, he is a pertinent link between past and future generations of footballers.

He shares the sadness of millions at news last month of Sir Bobby’s dementia diagnosis – and the widespread concerns about the implications for the sport's future.

Indeed, a Glasgow University study warned that ex-footballers are three and a half times more likely to die of dementia.

Sir Bobby’s diagnosis came soon after his brother, Jack, and their World Cup-winning team-mate, Nobby Stiles, had died from the disease. Fellow 1966 heroes, Martin Peters and Ray Wilson were earlier victims.

“A lot's changed in the game, but it’s right there’s finally a spotlight on the issue,” says Paul, who is calling on the FA and English Schools FA to work with manufacturers on standardising balls used by children.

Born in Darlington in 1956, his first footballing memory is the thrill of playing for the school team at North Road Primary in a 2-1 win over Gurney Pease.

He proved to be an all-round sportsman – playing for Durham County Schools at both football and rugby – but chose the former when fixtures clashed.

With a burst of pace and a sweet left foot attracting scouts, he was invited to train at Manchester United during school holidays, but Leeds also came calling. After three days of a two-week trial, he and his dad were summoned to meet Don Revie, but Paul’s heart was already with the Red Devils, and he signed as an apprentice a week later.

He left school at 15, and moved to Manchester, where memories include being given lifts to the training ground in George Best’s car. He went on to make four first-team appearances – including that debut in a goal-less Manchester derby.

In the meantime, he was part of an England Under-17 team - alongside Ray Wilkins, Glenn Hoddle, Bryan Robson, and Peter Barnes – that won the European Championships.

Sadly, a devastating knee injury, sustained in a reserve match away at Aston Villa, kept him out of the game for a year and, having lost a yard of pace, and was never quite the same player.

He returned to the North-East, playing more than 120 games for Hartlepool, before being transferred to Huddersfield Town, and retiring at 23.

Having fallen out of love with the sport, he started a career with United Biscuits, and it wasn’t until his son, Michael, joined the Cubs, and began playing football, that Paul’s passion was reignited.

He became a founder of the Darlington 21st All Stars before launching his football academy in 1997. Having guided thousands of children, in life-skills as well as football, he was awarded the MBE in 2008.

Right from the start of his academy, and long before the link was made with dementia, Paul has never used heading drills with the children in his care. “It just didn’t feel right,” he says.

In his early days at Manchester United, heading drills were a daily part of training – especially for the strikers and central defenders.

“The balls back then were heavy, leather 'casers', and when you headed it, you really felt it,” he recalls.

It wasn’t until the death of former West Brom centre-forward, Jeff Astle, nine years later, that the alarm bells began to sound. An inquest recorded a verdict of “death by industrial injury” and he was confirmed as the first British footballer to have died from heading a football.

Now, Sir Bobby’s diagnosis, following on from the deaths of four members of the victorious 1966 World Cup team, has added urgency to a campaign for football authorities to take the issue more seriously, with demands including a limit on the number of headers during training, and more funding for research.

In February, the FA issued updated guidance, which included no heading in training for primary school children, followed by a graduated approach to heading in training for older children, and no changes to heading in matches.

Paul believes another important step should be the football authorities and manufacturers  liaising over the standardisation of balls used by children.

“There's different sizes for different age groups, but still a lot of inconsistency in the quality of the balls, the weight, and the types of leather used. More needs to be done and I'll be raising it with the FA and English Schools FA,” he says.

“The authorities were probably too slow to act after Jeff Astle’s death. It’s good to see the guidelines being updated, but the investigations have to be stepped up to make sure everyone’s safe.”

PAUL Bielby’s roots might be described as a happy mix of Dixon of Dock Green and Open All Hours.

His father, Arthur, was an “old school” copper – known around North Road as “Bobby Bielby”. His popularity was underlined when he swept to a surprise victory as an independent councillor, beating Ossie O’Brien, who later became the town’s MP.

Paul’s mother, Grace, ran a general store, on the corner of Eldon Street, full of everything you could think of.

Though the shop was known for its friendly welcome, it is also remembered for a resident mynah bird that would tell customers to “Bugger off”.

ONTO what should perhaps have been sent to the 'news in briefs' column.

How lovely to see last week’s report about the affable Mayor of Darlington, Councillor Chris McEwan, sending ‘thank you’ cards and plants to 650 care workers in the town.

As well as working in partnership with Darlington Inner Wheel, the Mayor managed to secure generous sponsorship from market trader Robin Blair, Corstorphine and Wright Architects, Haughton Residents’ Association, The Sherwoods Group, tgi Media, and ELG Planning.

What the Echo report didn’t mention is that the Mayor made a slight boob when it came to acknowledging the sponsors on the cards.

Instead of ELG Planning, a planning consultancy based in Coniscliffe Road, he credited ELG Group – which happens to be the European Lingerie Group.

The Northern Echo:

“I take full responsibility,” confessed the red-faced Mayor.

Luckily, ELG planning have a sense of humour. Director Jeremy Good commented: “Hopefully, it’s raised a giggle, and the main thing is that the care workers know how much they’re appreciated.”

Meanwhile, Inner Wheel president, Karen Campbell, was left to conclude: “You can’t get the staff.”

Never mind, Mister Mayor, thongs can only get better.

FINALLY, from stockings to stocking-fillers…if you’re still looking for a last-minute gift, I can highly recommend the autobiography of Northern Echo legend Mike Amos.

Unconsidered Trifles is a delicious selection box of anecdotes from more than 50 years as an incomparable grass roots journalist in the North-East, and is infinitely better than another pair of socks. Honest.

The Northern Echo: