Published: 06:00, 12 June 2021
Few sports clubs have had a tougher time of it off the pitch than Tonbridge Angels Football Club over the past 13 years.
In that time, three young players with an association to the club - Jack Maddams, Junior Dian and Charlie Slocombe - have died of heart conditions.
But following the death of trialist Mr Dian, Tonbridge Angels staged a response in an attempt to prevent further tragedies.
They have linked up with the Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY) charity, with support from Roger Maddams, Jack’s dad, and, since 2016, provided heart screening days to help prevent the deaths of seemingly young and fit people.
It is mandatory to get tested in most professional sports in England, and all Football League clubs, such as Gillingham F.C, have to ensure each player they sign has had an ECG test within the past three years or an echocardiogram test in the last 10 years - if they haven’t, it is up to the club to get the player re-checked.
All youngsters turning professional require both an ECG and echocardiogram test.
But far fewer resources are available in semi-professional and amateur sport.
Tonbridge’s rivals, Maidstone United FC, also pay to have their players screened at KIMS Hospital in Maidstone.
“It is very expensive but we have always thought it is very important,” said Stones’ chief executive Bill Williams.
“From memory, I do believe that it was the Tonbridge heartache that originally jogged us into the decision we made.”
Sevenoaks Town FC also held a heart screening weekend in association with CRY in 2016 and, alongside Sevenoaks Hockey Club, Sevenoaks Rugby Club and Sevenoaks Vine Cricket Club, screened 173 people.
“There was a good turn-out,” said chairman Paul Lansdale.
“We will probably do another one at some point but it was good. Roger Maddams organised it all.
“We converted the two changing rooms into what, effectively, were medical rooms. It is certainly something we would do again.”
In 2005, in another tragic case in Kent, footballer Paul Sykes died while playing for Folkestone Invicta after he collapsed during a Kent Senior Cup game when he was 28.
Across six days of screening at Tonbridge between 2016 and January 2019, the most recent session, the Longmead club have screened 554 players. The first screening day was attended by Olympic double gold medallist Dame Kelly Holmes.
From the sessions so far, which Tonbridge Angels chairman Dave Netherstreet says cost £5,000 each time, 15 young people were identified as potentially having an underlying heart condition, and they were referred for further investigation.
They have been open to anyone aged between 14 and 35. Screenings are not 100% accurate, however, chief executive of CRY, Dr Steven Cox, says it does help prevent 89% of cases.
Mr Maddams, a former chairman of Tonbridge Angels, is involved with CRY and the football club, and has been influential in The Football Fightback campaign which funded the screening days at Tonbridge and at Sevenoaks.
He is hoping to raise awareness of cardiac issues in the young in memory of Jack, with the former Gillingham youth player having died in his sleep in 2008. He was just 17.
“In our case, we had no idea what was going on inside Jack’s body and he then passed away. You can’t change history in that respect,” said the 60-year-old who is a self-employed consultant in social housing and who won the 2014 Pride of Medway award alongside Jack’s mum, Janet.
“But if by having that sad knowledge we can raise awareness, raise some money and actually do some positive things, like the screening, some good can come out of a really bad situation.
“That is all we can do, really, in Jack’s honour as well as in honour of the other young people around the country that have perished in the same way.”
Mr Slocombe, aged 25, had been taking part in a six-a-side game when he collapsed on July 23, 2019, while Mr Dian fell unconscious on the pitch during a pre-season friendly on July 7, 2015. He died in the early hours of the next morning, aged 24.
“For someone who is in their late teens or early twenties to die like that, it is devastating for the families involved,” said Mr Netherstreet.
“They will never get over it. If we can stop this kind of thing from happening or assist in making them aware of what is happening, that is all we can do.”
Mr Cox said: “80% of young sudden deaths occur with no symptoms whatsoever. Often, they happen at home or during rest, so the only way you could have prevented that tragedy is through proactive cardiac screening.
“That is why so many of the families support CRY, taking forward screening in memory of their children.
“We do screening with elite athletes. About 10% of our work will be with the Olympic athletes, within football, within cricket and within Premiership Rugby.
“But 90% of our work is public screenings. Sport can increase the risk of a cardiac arrest if you have an underlying condition that you are not aware of.
“It increases it about three or four fold. But the reality is that the vast majority of sudden deaths occur in the non-elite athletes.
“They occur in people who enjoy sports.
“They might play competitively at the weekend, but they might not necessarily be aspiring to be a Premiership footballer or an Olympic athlete.
“That is where the vast majority of deaths occur, in grassroots sport or in the general population.
“That is an area we are always really keen to raise awareness of.”
He believes the “tipping point” in public awareness of sudden adult death syndrome - a mysterious cardiac cause of death - came when Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba collapsed during an FA Cup quarter-final in 2012. His heart stopped for 78 minutes but, miraculously, he survived.
“It was not the first time something like that had happened but it was a highly visual event,” Mr Cox said.
“Hundreds of thousands of people saw what had happened. It was pretty much close to a miracle that he managed to survive.
“There are all sorts of things which fitted into place which led to him surviving that.”
Soon after, runner Claire Squires died near the finish line of the 2012 London Marathon after she suffered heart failure.
Mr Cox is keen to emphasise those are merely cases involving sports people which are more well known but, in fact, any young person could have an undetected heart condition, with CRY saying one in 300 people they test will be identified as having a potentially life-threatening condition.
“So often, the sudden death will occur in a child’s sleep,” he said.
“One of the reasons people often think these events are just in athletes is because, if someone collapses on a football field, then there will be spectators and other people engaged in the game. It becomes a witnessed event.
“But those are the minority of cases.
“It is much more likely that someone will be at home or going for a run or a bike ride when it happens.”
Mr Netherstreet, 68, says the club have now got three defibrillators at the National League South club to help save lives, should a similar incident happen again. One is for their youth team, one is carried around by club physio Melvin Slight and the other located in the clubhouse.
The coronavirus pandemic has meant screening has been put on hold for now, Mr Netherstreet admits.
He said: “We have really got to start fundraising again, once we are allowed to get events back up-and-running. But the screening is worthwhile.”