‘Dementia doesn’t define me as a person …’

Malcolm Steele, from Aberdeen in Scotland, was diagnosed with dementia four years ago in his early 50s. His love for football and his lifelong devotion to hometown club Aberdeen FC are proving crucial mainstays in his journey since.

Malcolm is living  with dementia, and uses Aberdeen’s remarkable “Football Memories” project to remember and re-live precious moments from his life as fan.

Every month, as part of its #EqualGame campaign, UEFA focuses on someone from the country of one of its 55 member associations. That individual is an example of how football promotes inclusion, accessibility and diversity; his or her story exemplifies how disability, religion, sexuality, ethnicity or social background are no barriers to playing or enjoying football.

The everyday challenges of living with Alzheimer's, a disease that causes a lasting and often progressive decrease in someone's ability to think and remember, are taxing ones – in particular if you are diagnosed at an earlier stage of life.

Malcolm Steele, a 56-year-old from the north-eastern Scottish city of Aberdeen, received the shock diagnosis only four years ago, while working in the paper mill industry.

©UEFA

The diagnosis could have shattered the will of someone with so much life ahead of them. However, three major loves of his life have been instrumental in giving Malcolm a clear path forward since that day – devoted wife Tracy; renowned Scottish Premiership club Aberdeen FC, his favourites since childhood; and the game of football, which has captivated him ever since he was a little boy kicking a ball about in his local streets.

Malcolm is an Aberdonian through and through. He spent his childhood in the city suburb of Northfield, moved to a flat in Aberdeen as a teenager, and now lives with Tracy in Chapelton, a vibrant new community five miles south of Aberdeen.

The football bug arrived early. "I must have been about five or six years old," he says. "I remember just being out kicking a ball. At that time, we used to play football in the middle of the street. I just had such a passion for football. I wanted to play every day."

Malcolm began playing in his primary school team and continued playing football at amateur level in the ensuing years. He says he liked to try and emulate a particular idol. "I always wanted to play like Pelé," he says of the great Brazilian. "I sadly failed … but I tried!"

He subsequently moved from playing into coaching. "I started up a little team. It was for my two sons; they were five years old. I progressed with that team – they all stayed with me until Under-16 level. The boys had no success up until the very last season before I called it a day … and we won the league! I got so much pleasure seeing children developing through my coaching."

Malcolm is proud to wear the Dons' colours
Malcolm is proud to wear the Dons' colours©UEFA

Aberdeen FC and their Pittodrie Stadium play a crucial role in the life of the city's close-knit community. "It’s a one-team city," says Malcolm. His love for the Dons, as the club are known, shines like a beacon. "Aberdeen are just my life," he emphasises. "Aberdeen are the only team I want to watch." Something he still does as often as possible, as well as following the team's progress on radio and TV, and in the newspapers.

Malcolm singles out one particularly happy memory of supporting his hometown side; a magical night in the Swedish city of Gothenburg in May 1983, when the Dons conquered Europe. An outstanding team assembled by manager Alex Ferguson – an Aberdeen legend before his long and distinguished spell with Manchester United – captured the European Cup Winners' Cup, beating Real Madrid 2-1 after extra time in a memorable final.

Aberdeen celebrate winning the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1983
Aberdeen celebrate winning the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1983©Getty Images

"My parents weren't that wealthy, so I didn't go," Malcolm says. "But I would have loved to have done that."

Reliving past moments through the Football Memories programme
Reliving past moments through the Football Memories programme©UEFA

Dons fans of a certain age have that night of glory in Sweden engrained in their hearts and minds. But, with the passing of time, there are now some who need special assistance to recall those heady moments – and Aberdeen help them look back thanks to the club's participation in the Football Memories programme. This is an admirable project, rolled out by the Scottish Football Association with the aid of UEFA funding, and which is a fine example of how clubs can give back to their community.

Participants are referred by Alzheimer Scotland, which believes that football reminiscence may help people living with dementia remain active and stay part of the club and community. The Aberdeen group gets the chance to see unique memorabilia, hear stories about famous matches and reminisce about Aberdeen through the decades.

Malcolm is a committed participant in the programme – and by caring for fans like him in this way, the Dons can be seen as thanking people for their loyalty in the best possible manner.

Malcolm gets the chance to hold trophies such as the UEFA European Cup Winners' Cup won by Aberdeen in 1983
Malcolm gets the chance to hold trophies such as the UEFA European Cup Winners' Cup won by Aberdeen in 1983©UEFA

"You can relate to older games and older times," he says. "We'll sometimes have a speaker come in – maybe former players. We've had cups on display. Just the feel of picking up a trophy, it's fantastic. A lot of people would never experience that. That itself jogs a lot of memories for people. The Scottish Cup is sitting there right in front of you, and you think nobody else other than the players get to touch these things.

"The people that organise the memory classes do a fantastic job. Everyone in the group has their own character – but you all come together as one."

Malcolm recalls his shock when he was diagnosed with dementia. "I didn't know that I had [the disease] at the time," he reflects. "At work, my boss asked me: 'Have you been OK, Malcolm, you seem like you haven't been yourself these last few months.' Normally, I'm buzzing, and I thought about that.

"I went to the doctor and spoke about it, and they said that they'd do some tests. They didn't mention Alzheimer's at the time, because they were just putting it down to stress at work.

"I was stunned. The first thing I thought was: 'What do I do now?' I said: 'Only old people get Alzheimer's' – but the doctor said it wasn't the case."

Naturally, the diagnosis profoundly affected Malcolm's life. He explains what it's like to live with the disease. "It's not easy," he reflects. "I find I'm reliant … it's so difficult for somebody who was just a normal working guy to suddenly be relying on others."

Malcolm and Tracy watch the Dons in action
Malcolm and Tracy watch the Dons in action©UEFA

Thankfully, Malcolm has the tireless and constant support of Tracy, who works as a homecare assistant. "We've got a fantastic relationship," he says fondly of his wife. "We as a couple are almost joined at the hip. She's just my rock. She always says to me: 'If you need something, just tell me', because I'm a bit stubborn, like most men are."

Football will also remain embedded in Malcolm's heart. "Football has always been in my life, and it will always stay in my life," he says. The coach in him comes to the fore whenever he watches Aberdeen in action at Pittodrie. "I'm focused on the match, I'm focused on where the ball is – I feel the game and I think it as I'm watching it. [I want to] just go down and kick the ball for them!"

Malcolm agrees wholeheartedly with the values anchored within UEFA's #EqualGame campaign – that football is accessible to everyone. "Football is a game that everybody can participate in," he emphasises. "Football brings everybody together."

Malcolm and Tracy live life to the full. "We try to do as many things as we possibly can," Tracy explains. "Holidays and things like that. It doesn't really stop us from doing anything. We do so much together."

Both are conscious of the difficulty that many people have in understanding dementia, or the problems that the disease presents. "They can't see the illness," says Tracy. "Coping with the illness as well on a day-to-day basis can be very challenging, but we get there. We work well together, and we get through."

What would be Malcolm Steele's advice to other people who have dementia? "I would encourage them just to keep going, and never give up," is his emphatic response.

"I accept that I have dementia, and I try to manage it the best I can," he says. "[The dementia is there] but I'm still here as well. I have dementia, but it doesn't define me as a person … it never will."

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