Denis Law diagnosis should force football to ask hard questions - Martyn McLaughlin

There is grainy black-and-white footage of Scotland’s match against England before a packed Hampden in 1966 that attests to the theory that goal scoring was nothing short of a compulsion for Denis Law.

An in-swinging corner from Jimmy Johnstone veered towards the stalwarts of an England defence that would, just a few months later, help their nation to World Cup glory.

Nestled amongst them, however, was Law, a player who stood just 5ft 9in in his socks. Undeterred, he rose above them all like a salmon to power the ball into the back of the net.

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Denis Law: Scotland and Manchester United legend reveals battle with dementia
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The game may have ended in defeat for Scotland, but the footage is worth its weight in gold to those who cherish the national team’s halcyon years, and the only Scot ever to have won the Ballon d’Or. Sadly, such moments come at a price.

Law, one of the finest footballers in Scotland’s and Manchester United’s history, announced on Thursday he has Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, becoming the latest in a long line of former players to reveal they are suffering from the degenerative brain disease.

Only last year, Law revealed he suffered from headaches after heading heavy balls during his early career at Huddersfield Town. At this stage, it is impossible to say whether repeated heading contributed to his diagnosis, but the fact one of the most revered forwards in the sport’s history has dementia can, and should, bring renewed focus to the issue.

Research by the University of Glasgow has led the way in identifying a significant increase in the incidence of neurodegenerative diseases in former professional players, but such work is relatively new and there is much to learn, particularly around specific causative factors.

Denis Law in his pomp with Manchester United in 1966. Picture: Wesley/Keystone/GettyDenis Law in his pomp with Manchester United in 1966. Picture: Wesley/Keystone/Getty
Denis Law in his pomp with Manchester United in 1966. Picture: Wesley/Keystone/Getty

The Scottish Football Association’s revised guidelines now recommend that no primary aged children should practice heading, with a graduated approach for older children. Coupled with enhanced safety protocols, they are designed to better protect the welfare of players.

Even so, it seems prescient to ask whether such measures are sufficient, and whether the game Law and so many others love could – or should – continue without heading. The idea may be anathema to those who rejoice in the sport’s physicality, but if it could extend the lives of those we cheer on from the terraces, it is worth considering.

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