Insight: Has football become too dangerous for our children?

In 1972 Celtic goalkeeper Evan Williams dives to keep the ball from Pat Stanton of Hibs at Parkhead
In 1972 Celtic goalkeeper Evan Williams dives to keep the ball from Pat Stanton of Hibs at Parkhead
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As the number of football veterans with Alzheimer’s grows, there is a dearth of research into whether young players need protection, says Kevan Christie

Playing under the floodlights on European glory nights at a packed Easter Road stadium, Hibs legend Pat Stanton would think nothing of towering above opponents to win another decisive header.

The silky midfielder, immortalised in the Trainspotting films, rose to head home the fourth goal in one of the Edinburgh side’s most memorable victories, a 5-0 thumping of Italian giants Napoli in 1967.

In the prime of life, super fit and enjoying every moment of playing the game he loved, Stanton would have no idea that the aerial duels, part and parcel of the cut and thrust of the beautiful game, would inflict so much misery on his old comrades.

Last week the sad news that former Aberdeen and Dunfermline football manager Jimmy Calderwood has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 62 reignited the debate around the safety of heading the ball.

Calderwood is the latest in a long line of more than 300 former players battling dementia, including Celtic legend Billy McNeill and his Lisbon Lion teammate Stevie Chalmers.

A recent study carried out by University College London found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a potential cause of the illness caused by repeated blows to the head, in the brains of retired footballers whose next of kin gave permission for post-mortem examinations.

While there is little doubt that repeated heading of heavy leather footballs in the past is a contributing factor to dementia in older players, research on the impact of the lighter balls used today is in its infancy.

Last October, a study from the University of Stirling caused controversy after researchers identified small but significant changes in the brain function immediately after routine heading practice. The research was the first to detect direct changes in the brain after players are exposed to everyday head impacts, as opposed to clinical brain injuries like concussion.

Football players headed a ball 20 times, fired from a machine designed to simulate the pace and power of a corner kick. Before and after the heading sessions, scientists tested players’ brain function and memory.

Increased inhibition in the brain was detected after just a single session of heading, while memory test performance was also reduced by between 41 and 67 per cent, with effects normalising within 24 hours. Crucially, in all of this the weight of the ball was not a factor.

Stanton, 72, who also played for Celtic and Scotland, called for more to be done to investigate the issue and said it “can’t be ignored”.

“I started way back in the early 60s and even before that, playing junior football, the balls were heavier, but we never really noticed at the time,” said Stanton

“It’s really looking back and with all that constant heading of the ball – I remember the old-style balls took a lot of water in and were that bit heavier.

“There are people who have got dementia who never headed a ball in their life, but I can’t imagine that constantly heading the ball year-in year-out, particularly for defenders, could have been doing you any good.

“If it affects boxers who are getting punched – even though there’s a big difference – I don’t suppose it was doing any good.”

Stanton added: “The fact that they’re aware of it now and are building evidence and gathering information means it’s something that needs to be looked at. It can’t be ignored.

“When I was playing, I honestly can’t remember anyone talking about it or saying they had a sore head. We were playing, we were enjoying ourselves, it’s only in later years that you start to think about it.”

Former Scotland, Dundee United and Hearts star Eamonn Bannon told Scotland on Sunday he “saw stars” when heading the old-style leather balls as a teenager honing his skills in the parks of Edinburgh.

“What interested me about Jimmy Calderwood was his age, he’s 62 and I’m 59, so he’s just slightly ahead of me,” said Bannon. “I certainly remember heading the heavy leather balls and I remember making a conscious decision I was never going to head one straight on again in wet weather.

“When the ball was coming straight towards you, rather than head it back in the direction it came from you kind of glanced it on because sometimes you actually saw stars if you headed a heavy ball that a goalkeeper had lumped up the park.

“That’s why I think centre-halves are much more liable to get this type of thing than say a winger or a midfielder – it doesn’t surprise me at all that centre-halves of the previous generation would suffer from that [early Alzheimer’s].

“They’re naturally trying to header the ball back the way it came – flush on the forehead.

“It’s just like somebody coming and mashing your forehead with the palm of their hand really hard – just imagine that. It’s not exactly a giant leap to say ‘no wonder it affected people’.”

Bannon was a Dundee United teammate of Frank Kopel, whose widow Amanda has campaigned for “Frank’s Law”, a bill which has been lodged at Holyrood to extend free personal care to dementia patients aged under 65.

Kopel was diagnosed with dementia when he was 59 and was eligible for just 19 days of free personal care before he died in 2014, aged 65.

“Frank Kopel was a teammate from the generation ahead of me who suffered even though he was a full-back, and he had pugilistic dementia, which is basically associated with boxers,” said Bannon.

“But I would associate these problems more with centre-halves because of heading the ball constantly in practice and matches.

“The ball now is obviously so much lighter and so much better.

“I never played professionally with the heavy-duty balls, it was when I was like 13 to 14, some guy would bring a heavy ball down to the park,” said Bannon.

“I’ve heard in America they’ve stopped children heading the ball, it’s a health and safety issue there. At the time it was the product we had and it was difficult to think back then what could have been done.

“There have been a lot of studies done with boxers who are just getting constantly punched and eventually something happens – Muhammad Ali, there’s a classic example.

“However it doesn’t appear to harm everybody – it’s a wee bit like smoking and lung cancer, some people get away with it and some don’t and we don’t seem to know why.”

Douglas Dalgleish, the chairman of crack youth team Tynecastle Football Club said the heading issue is a concern, but he isn’t aware of any clear direction coming from the SFA.

“What we try to do at Tynecastle is have the younger ones play seven-a-side and keep the ball on the deck, never in the air, and it’s only when they come to under-13s that they begin to start heading a football,” said Dalgleish.

“It’s something we do, it’s part of our heritage, we try to develop them as players and you can’t play football up in the air. We encourage our players to play on the deck, playing passes not just banging balls everywhere – that’s how we develop our policy. I wouldn’t say it’s a universal policy – I haven’t seen anything from the SFA. I think there’s an encouragement to play the game, but there’s nobody saying you can’t head a ball.

“I’m not sure how you’d introduce that – who’s going to monitor that? I think we need to see more evidence relating to the younger players. It’s all historical at the moment as far as I’m aware.”

For Dalgleish, the issue is a watching brief: “That’s not to say we should ignore it. We’re philosophical about it at Tynecastle – but of course heading is part of the game as you go forward.”

Neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart, who was the co-author of the University of Stirling study, was asked what advice he would offer to young footballers and their parents, based on his findings at the time.

He said: “If it’s just a short-term thing and it just lasts 24 hours, if I were a parent of a kid who had an exam on a Wednesday, I would suggest to them perhaps that they miss football training [on Tuesday] certainly because I would want to do well in that Wednesday afternoon exam.”

He added: “If you translate the evidence we’ve got now, we’ve got an immediate impairment of short and long-term memory – which does recover. It takes 24 hours to recover – so I would say, for that 24-hour period, if you’ve got something important coming up, that you shouldn’t be playing football.”

The English FA wrote to Fifa last year urging it to launch an investigation after it was revealed that three World Cup-winning England footballers, Martin Peters, Nobby Stiles and Ray Wilson, are suffering from Alzheimer’s. The FA asked football’s governing body to co-operate in researching potential links between heading and cognitive damage in later life.

The Scottish Government and SFA launched their If In Doubt, Sit Them Out campaign around concussion for all sports in 2015.

Stewart Regan, chief executive of the Scottish FA, said: “The Scottish FA supports the health and wellbeing of players as a priority from elite to grassroots players, both male and female. We are working closely with key stakeholders, including medical and academic partners, to explore the impact of traumatic brain injury (TBI) on the future health of players.

“In addition to examining research on TBI conducted across the globe we are exploring possible opportunities for collaborative research with other football authorities.

“The Scottish FA were also part of a Scotland-wide group of sports governing bodies who, together with the Scottish Government and sportscotland, produced what we understand were the first consensus guidelines for the management of concussion in the world. The key message at grassroots level is ‘if in doubt sit them out’.”

Alzheimer Scotland said it would not comment on the University of Stirling study with its focus being on a wider body of scientific research in the field. However, it provided information on its Football Memories project which aims to provide images of the game to help those with Alzheimer’s as part of reminiscence activity. The project started initially as a one-year pilot project in 2009 and was established by the Scottish Football Museum and by members of the Scottish Football Heritage Network, in particular members representing Falkirk FC, Aberdeen FC and the Hibernian Historical Trust.

The project also involved Alzheimer Scotland and Glasgow Caledonian University.

Robert Craig, chairman of Sports Heritage Scotland, said: “I’ve been involved with the project from the very start. Basically it was aimed at providing support for people with dementia and we started off with three groups and we’ve now got 150 groups.

“It can be anybody, some of the groups have ex-players in them. People in the groups may not have dementia but have problems with social isolation or just memory difficulties, because what we found was if you restrict it to only people who have dementia it can be quite isolating.”