The wife of former Northern Ireland World Cup hero and Glentoran manager Tommy Cassidy has opened up about the ex-footballer's 'heartbreaking' battle with Alzheimer's disease.
In a frank, honest and emotional interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Rosemary Cassidy has spoken about how the irreversible, progressive brain disorder, which is the most common type of dementia in the UK, has impacted on 70-year-old Tommy who, having been diagnosed with the illness in 2017, now only has a 'very short memory span'.
Tommy's wife adds that fears surrounding the coronavirus pandemic have increased worry and that his condition has become "progressively worse".
Speaking from their home in Newcastle, where Cassidy was a huge hero as a player in the 1970s, Rosemary says she has chosen this moment to talk about Tommy's Alzheimer's to help raise awareness about the disease.
Last year England World Cup winners Jack Charlton and Nobby Stiles passed away with dementia while Sir Bobby Charlton was diagnosed with the condition in November. These cases and others have led to a growing debate about links between football and dementia.
Belfast-born Cassidy won 24 Northern Ireland caps as a strong and gifted midfielder with his final appearance in the green shirt coming as an early second half substitute during the epic 1-0 victory over hosts Spain in the 1982 World Cup finals. Previously he played a key role when Billy Bingham's team won the Home Nations Championship in 1980.
He first came to prominence in club football as a teenager with Glentoran with impressive performances earning him a move to Newcastle where he became a regular playing in the 1974 FA Cup final against Liverpool and the 1976 League Cup decider versus Manchester City. He also scored a stunning goal in a famous New Year's Day win over fierce derby rivals Sunderland at St James' Park which is still talked about by the Toon Army today.
After a decade with Newcastle, in 1980 Cassidy moved to Burnley where he enjoyed a fine spell prior to joining APOEL in Cyprus in 1983. He was a Cup winner there as a player and led APOEL to title glory as manager leaving in 1989 having spoken out about corruption in Cypriot football.
Cassidy would continue in management with Gateshead before being appointed Glentoran boss in 1994. He would guide them to Irish Cup glory in 1996 but left a year later under pressure from fans after some disappointing results. He would go on to be boss at Ards, Sligo Rovers, non league Workington, when he met Rosemary, Newcastle Blue Star, Whitby Town and latterly Blyth Spartans, leaving that post in 2012.
Physically the father of four is in good health but Alzheimer's disease destroys memory and thinking skills, and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks.
Wife Rosemary reveals: "Tom was diagnosed in 2017 and his condition has got progressively worse. We could have a conversation and Tom would have forgotten about it not long after because he has a very short memory span.
"It's heartbreaking. There has been lots of publicity lately about footballers having dementia or Alzheimer's and we wanted to add our voice to that to raise awareness and try to help and educate the next generation about how it affects people.
"Tom has lived a good life and been incredibly healthy in that time. He's physically healthy now. All bits of him are fine and all working strong and he is healthy, it's just his memory and he feels very bad about it. I say to him 'Alzheimer's is just an illness, you can't help it' but he feels so bad.
"It's something that is not going to heal. I know it sounds awful but a friend of mine who had cancer recently said to me with someone who has cancer there's a chance that they'll survive or they won't. There's a line. With Alzheimer's there's no line. It's just going to continue. Few know the impact that Alzheimer's can have unless you have experienced it." Tommy's four children from his first marriage, Jennifer, Anders, Victoria and Hannah, are in constant touch through phone calls or via Zoom and visiting when possible with social distancing due to Covid-19.
Rosemary says that the coronavirus pandemic has made things even more difficult for her husband.
She reveals: "It's definitely got worse over the past year and I think that's to do with Covid. We used to go into Newcastle on a Saturday and at lunch time I would drop him off at the pub. My son and his partner would go to the pub with Tom and the couple of friends that Tom had made in the pub and then they would put him in a taxi and send him home at 7pm. That was in 2019 and at the start of last year.
"All of a sudden it stopped in March. Unless I am with him he won't go out. He's very worried about the coronavirus. He wouldn't remember about a mask or staying away from people.
"We went through a phase at the start of the virus in March when I was on furlough and I started painting the house because I wanted to sell it. As it progressed I realised we couldn't sell it because it wouldn't have been good for Tom. It's pressure that he doesn't need."
Tommy's wife says she has plans to contact the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) to see if they can offer any help.
Rosemary has already been in touch with the Alzheimer's Society and says: "The Alzheimer's Society has been great but they offer things Tommy doesn't want to do. Tom doesn't want to go to a gardening club. He doesn't want to go and play bowls.
"It's very difficult for someone who has only had football as their interest and nothing else. The Alzheimer's Society may say we'll take him here and take him there but he doesn't want to go."
Mrs Cassidy, a Geordie who studied at the Ulster College of Physical Education, adds: "There are so many footballers who have suffered or are suffering from Alzheimer's or dementia and I feel there must be a connection.
"Like many families out there who have been affected I'd like more done about it to help other footballers and sports stars and people in general because it is such a difficult and heartbreaking disease to deal with."
Reflecting on their early years together, Rosemary said: "I met Tom in 2002, the week after he started managing at Workington. Honestly, we had the most fabulous life. I was working part time and I used to go to a lot of games and to training with him. I used to laugh about it and say 'I'm the manager's wife at Workington and am supposed to be here in high heels and fur coat but no, I'm stuck in the kitchen washing dishes'. We had a great time.
"We got married in 2009. What more could I want than a footballer that I had been watching playing football for Newcastle. I was a big Newcastle fan and had been watching Tommy play football for Newcastle for years. Meeting him, he was a wonderful man.
"He's still my Tom and I love him dearly but it is so hard to see him go through what he is going through."