Supporters must back every effort to tackle football’s heartbreaking health crisis, writes Laura Lawrence.
The original London Football Association rules didn’t include heading. It wasn’t part of the game until the London FA played Sheffield FA for the first time in 1866. The Sheffield players used their heads to control the ball and it caused apparent laughter from their southern counterparts. It’s a rule they would quickly adopt nationally.
Following recent research from the Field study led by the University of Glasgow on behalf of the Football Association (FA) and the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), heading of the ball may become a thing of the past but it’s no laughing matter.
Research has been trickling through since the death of Jeff Astle, who was recorded as the first footballer to die from degenerative brain disease linked to heading a ball. Astle’s family have been campaigning for years for further research to be conducted and measures taken by the FA.
Research from 2019 found that footballers were three-and-a-half times more likely to die from a neurodegenerative disease and dementia than the general population. The latest research has found that defenders are five times more likely to die of these diseases than non-footballers.
The report’s author Professor Willie Stewart has called for football to come with a health warning.
He said: “I’ve yet to see any evidence that heading a ball is good for you. Football is great for you, there is less cancer and cardiovascular problems for players, but there are dreadful levels of dementia, and I can’t see the benefit of that.”
From this season, professional footballers will be limited to “10 higher force” headers in training but I have to question how enforceable this is and how it will be monitored?
Will coaches keep a checklist and physically stop their players after they reach 10 headers? During a match when a cross comes in, will their natural instincts kick in to clear it with their head or will they leave it to drop for a risker clearance?
Of course, the reduction of the risk is advisable. Dementia is a heartbreaking condition. With each research paper released, it’s clear that this is preventable.
I would miss heading if it was banned. I have a thing about goalscoring defenders. It stems from the 1990s watching Nigel Pearson, Peter Shirtliff, and Viv Anderson, rising above, and bulleting a header into the back of the net. It continued right up to the days of Reda Johnson who, at one point, became like Paul Warhurst, defender-cum-striker. Where Warhurst was agile with the ball at his feet, Reda was robust and perfect for a dead-ball header.
When I asked people on Twitter what the best headed goal was, their answers were engaged and enthusiastic. Fans’ memories ranged from Robin van Persie’s Puskas nominated goal for the Netherlands during the World Cup in 2014 through to personal headers of club legends. Keith Houchen’s winner for Coventry City in the 1987 FA Cup Final is a memory that fans of that club will cherish forever but they are just that, memories. Ones they may not forget unlike two-thirds of professional defenders.
I would miss goal-line clearances and the chance to use the term ‘glancing’ for a touch that kisses the head of a footballer. It can be a beautiful sight but clearly it is deadly.
While I don’t believe a total ban will be applied, the figures are terrifying for professional footballers and we as fans should support every effort to reduce the risk to their future health.
Follow Laura on Twitter @YICETOR