Rugby League’s dementia crisis: Bobbie Goulding and former pros open up on their diagnoses

Just days after being given the devastating news that he has early onset dementia, Bobbie Goulding still has the capacity to surprise.

The 49-year-old’s dancing feet may have slowed from his days competing with Shaun Edwards to be the best half-back in Super League but he retains the quick wit that made him such a colourful personality off the pitch throughout an illustrious career. 

‘Going from penthouse to s***house is the simple way to say it,’ he says with a smile of his diagnosis.

Goulding will need his sense of humour over the months and years to come as he battles a debilitating brain condition for which there is little treatment, and attempts to come to terms with the implications for his family.

Rugby League legend Bobbie Goulding opens up to Sportsmail on his dementia diagnosis

Since struggling with a post-retirement drink and drugs addiction that climaxed with him puncturing a lung after crashing the family car into a tree eight years ago, the former Great Britain scrum-half has successfully turned his life around, building a personal training business from a gym he owns in St Helens.

Given this transformation, his dementia diagnosis seems particularly cruel. The 5ft 6in scrum-half made his first-team debut for Wigan at 16 and just two years later became the youngest-ever Great Britain tourist at 18, winning the first of 17 caps.

‘To get the diagnosis was devastating,’ says Goulding. ‘I’m a bit shook up. I’ve never been scared of anything in my life, but I’m scared now. I’ve got a lovely family to think about and my grandson now. He means more to me than anything and I absolutely idolise him. And if this does go quickly I might not get much time with him.

‘I hope everything’s going to be OK. In some ways it’s worse knowing as it’s always at the back of your mind. If you don’t know about it, you can get on with your life.’

Some of the other players taking legal action against the Rugby Football League for negligence in their treatment of head injuries have struggled with dementia symptoms for years. Goulding’s diagnosis was a shock despite his increasing forgetfulness and mood swings.

Goulding played as a scrum-half

He captained a St Helens side to the Silk Cut Rugby League Challenge Cup in 1996

The 49-year-old made 366 appearance across 10 rugby league clubs during his time as a pro

His condition comes as little surprise due to the rough treatment he received on the pitch, and the lack of treatment off it

His condition comes as little surprise due to the rough treatment he received on the pitch, and the lack of treatment off it

‘It has come out of the blue and hit me like a bus, it is hard to take,’ he says. ‘I didn’t think about dementia at all, I just thought it was the way life was.

‘You’d be better off speaking to my wife and daughter about what I’m like, but things aren’t right.

‘I’m argumentative. I forget things. Last week I even forgot I was on a Zoom call with the neurologist. I’d signed into it OK, but the next thing my phone was ringing red hot.

‘I didn’t answer it as I didn’t recognise the number, and then my daughter came in to tell me what I was supposed to be doing. I finally answered the call and it was the doctor I’d logged on my computer to speak to 10 minutes earlier.’

With the benefit of hindsight, however, his condition comes as little surprise due to the rough treatment he received on the pitch, and the lack of treatment off it.

Given his diminutive stature there is an obvious comparison to be made with Rob Burrow, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of just 37. Both were relative pygmies in a game played by giants.

Goulding has drew comparisons to ex-Leeds Rhino star Rob Burrow (pictured), who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of just 37

Goulding has drew comparisons to ex-Leeds Rhino star Rob Burrow (pictured), who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of just 37

‘I was 13 stone, 5ft 6in, playing against blokes who were 6ft 2in and 19 stone, and didn’t even bother about it,’ Goulding says. ‘But it takes its toll in the end. Especially if they’re angry!

‘I was knocked out cold six times. I’ve torn my biceps off my arm. I broke my leg. I’ve had numerous groin operations. I’ve split my head open. I’ve knocked my teeth out. I had my ankle fused last March. 

‘I accepted everything like that when I played, as I didn’t know any better at the time. What needs to change is the aftercare following the incidents. When you’re knocked out you shouldn’t be playing. We were neglected. I hope things have changed and the players are treated better.’

Some of the incidents Goulding recalls from his career, and the circumstances in which he was forced to play, defy belief. ‘I played within days of serious knockouts on at least three occasions,’ he says. 

‘I remember playing on a Sunday for Leigh at Huddersfield towards the end of my career in 2002. I was in Huddersfield Royal Infirmary on the Sunday night after being seriously knocked out, and played the following Saturday against Batley.

‘I didn’t have one doctor check on me during that week. “Bob, are you ready to play?” they said. “Yeah, I’ll play”. If you watched the video you’d be shocked.

‘There was another game that stands out just after I’d signed for Widnes in 1992. We were playing at Hull KR and I was knocked out.

‘We were still living in Leeds at the time so I didn’t get the team bus home. My wife drove and she had to pull over on the motorway as all my bodily functions just went right through me. She had to pull over, and there was s**t and p**s everywhere. It was horrendous. I had no control at all.’

The only recognition of the dangers of concussion Goulding received during a playing career that began at Wigan in 1990 and finished with a player-coaching stint at Rochdale 15 years later was a pre-season baseline cognitive assessment which, he claims, was completely unsupervised, thus allowing the players to cheat and making a mockery of the entire process.

I had no control. All my bodily functions went right through me. There was s**t and p**s everywhere. It was horrendous

‘We had the test to do on the computer at the start of the season to set our template for the year, which you’d come back to if you had a head injury, but players cheated all the time,’ he says.

‘You had to come back and do it if you were injured and beat your previous time.

‘But we’d give each other our passwords and do it for each other all the time. There was no one overseeing the process so you’d have people doing it for their mate who was injured.

‘It’s not good enough for a so-called professional sport.’

Other than the legal case, Goulding’s priority is planning a future for his family: wife Paula, four children and three-year-old grandson Ralphy.

Goulding’s priority is planning a future for his family: wife Paula, four children and grandson

Goulding’s priority is planning a future for his family: wife Paula, four children and grandson

‘My wife is still in shock,’ he says. ‘Paula’s a teacher and when she came home from work last Friday after the diagnosis she gave me a little kiss. 

‘I usually have to wait until later in the evening for those! We’ve been together 31 years, married 29, and held hands when we went shopping last weekend. We felt very close.

‘I had to call my son in Australia to tell him. He’s set up a new life for himself and it wasn’t nice to make that call.

‘I’m trying to be as positive as I possibly can. I’m a determined bloke and whatever comes up I’m going to push on through. 

‘When you get to 49 you’ve lived a pretty miserable life if you’ve not had a few problems to get over. I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me.’

The authorities have got away with murder for years


Age: 47 — former Oldham, Swinton and Wales winger

My symptoms came out of the blue two years ago – it was like being hit by a bus. Three years ago I did a 125-mile run and the year before I did the Marathon des Sables, six marathons in six days in the Sahara desert, but all of a sudden I went to pieces.

I started being clumsy, dropping things all the time. I got headaches, a wave of tiredness over my face. I couldn’t stand bright lights, even my wife turning the light on in the morning would irritate me. Loud noises were painful.

I just took it on the chin and thought it was because I was getting old, but we had some tests done and discovered I’ve got early dementia. There will be a lot of guys with this condition who don’t even know it. 

Ex-Oldham, Swinton and Wales winger Mickii Edwards has slammed the game's authorities

Ex-Oldham, Swinton and Wales winger Mickii Edwards has slammed the game’s authorities

They’re big strong guys with a very high tolerance for pain and suffering, so they will just be getting on with it. They’ll be walking around in La La Land, doing tough jobs on construction sites, when they need help.

The authorities have got away with murder for years. When I played you’d have a bang on the head, be bleeding, but just play on. The doctor would stick Vaseline on the wound and say carry on. Often after games I’d feel sick and nauseous. There were no protocols or aftercare. You were basically treated like a piece of meat.

There’s no help or support out there. There are a lot of suicides among former rugby players. Two of my mates from one team killed themselves for no apparent reason. They were obviously depressed with hindsight, but no one knew they were.

We need to put a structure in place to get help to people who need it.

Sometimes I wonder what the point is… it’s frightening


Age: 43 — former Halifax, Workington and Scotland prop

The worst thing for me is the anger issues. I can be really nasty and aggressive with people for no reason. 

If someone looks at me in what I consider the wrong way I’ll bite their head off, or want to get hold of them. It’s absolutely awful. I feel like my head is in a dark cloud all the time.

I try not to get upset, but I know it’s only going to get worse. When I talk to the other lads and hear what I’ve got to look forward to, sometimes I wonder, what’s the point? 

It’s very frightening as I’ve got a young family and need to support them. It’s only thinking about my kids and my family that keeps me going.

Former Scotland prop Ryan MacDonald's diagnosis has left him feeling angry and frightened

Former Scotland prop Ryan MacDonald’s diagnosis has left him feeling angry and frightened

One of the hardest things has been asking for help. From a young age you’re taught not to show any weakness, especially in our game, but now I’m trying to bare my soul to complete strangers. 

The NHS just throw tablets at you, which can lift the fog, but they don’t deal with the problem. They just mask it.

Never mind head injuries, there’s no aftercare in rugby, full stop. As soon as you’re retired you don’t exist. You’re left in the dark. 

You lose 70 or 80 per cent of your friends, who may still be playing, and the thing you’ve done all your life you can no longer do. All of a sudden you’re just dropped like a stone. Clubs don’t bother getting in touch with you as you’re no use to them anymore. It’s an absolute joke.

Memory loss has turned me into a nervous recluse


Age: 50 — former St Helens, Warrington and Scotland winger

I started forgetting things about 10 or 12 years ago before I was 40, even major events.

One time I got into trouble with the police. I was arrested seven days after an incident in my car, but when the police knocked on my door I had no recollection of it happening. They told me that I’d gone into the back of a car, threatened the other driver, and then driven off. The policeman said to me, ‘You’re either the best liar in the world, or you didn’t do it!’ I pleaded guilty, but to this day I can’t remember a thing.

I forget where I’ve parked my car and have to check I’ve locked the doors a hundred times to make sure. Sometimes I’ll be making coffee and realise I’ve put two spoons in the cup. Why would I do that? These aren’t major things, but they make me feel anxious about the future. I’ve got a 10-month-old daughter and need to look after her.

Former St Helens winger Jason Roach says his memory loss has seen him 'retreat into my shell'

Former St Helens winger Jason Roach says his memory loss has seen him ‘retreat into my shell’

I used to be the life and soul, but because of the forgetfulness I’ve retreated into my shell. I was a nervous wreck coming on the train today because I don’t do public transport anymore. I’ve become quite reclusive. I just go to work, come home, have the odd drink in my garden.

Bizarrely, I can still remember my first concussion. I was playing for St Helens against Bradford at Christmas. I took the ball up from the kick-off, was cleaned out, then just sat down on my backside. I played on until half-time. I wasn’t out cold, but the lads said I was singing Christmas carols on the bench in the second half.

I was taken to hospital, where I rang my partner of two years, and she said we’d split up a few weeks earlier. I had no idea. I was in tears in the hospital in my Saints kit.