Former head of SFA: Under 12s should be banned from heading footballs

The Ex-Rangers and Kilmarnock player suggested children practise with soft plastic balls instead.
The Ex-Rangers and Kilmarnock player suggested children practise with soft plastic balls instead.
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A former head of the SFA is calling for children under the age of 12 to be banned from heading footballs in the wake of dementia risks.

Gordon Smith, who was the Scottish Football Association's chief executive from 2007 to 2010, said action was needed to safeguard young players "whose brains were still developing".

The Ex-Rangers and Kilmarnock player suggested children practise with soft plastic balls instead.

Support for a change in the youth game is growing in light of recent evidence, which showed for the first time a direct link between dementia and football.

The study, led by Dr Willie Stewart at the University of Glasgow, found that former professional players in Scotland were five times more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease.

It also found that overall they were three-and-a-half times more likely to die of a neurodegenerative disease over the age of 70.

Mr Smith recounted how Celtic legend Billy McNeill would practice headers daily, encouraging the goalkeeper to kick the ball at him and then head it back down the pitch "as hard as he could".

Former First Minister Henry McLeish, who played football professionally, called on the SFA to set up a taskforce to look at the potential risks to children.

The Scottish Youth Football Association (SYFA) said safety around the kids' game is "regularly reviewed" while the SFA would not comment directly.

Mr Smith said: "I believe because of what has happened and because of the evidence we have, I do agree with the Americans that the younger kids, under 12 should not be heading the ball.

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"The mind is just developing at that stage.

"What I would say is that the younger kids could practise technique with a soft plastic ball.

"One of the biggest problems they had in days gone by was that there was a lot of practice heading sessions.

"Billy McNeill was my manager at Manchester City and he said to me his strength was heading the ball.

"He used to practise every day.

"He used to get the goalkeeper to kick the ball and he would head it as hard as he could back up the field and that's something we should cut out.

"But I don't believe it should be taken out of the game.

"I think it's very much part of the game, like tackling.

"It's a special aspect of it and I want to keep that in football but we should take into account the danger for kids.

"It's slightly different from days gone by.

"If I was getting told now, this could affect you in later life do you want to stop playing football, I would say 'no I'll take the consequences'.

"There are loads of people who smoke who don't get lung cancer.

"It's your metabolism allied to things that you have been doing that is causing the problem.

"I got my nose broken three times playing football but it's one of the elements of the sport - there is always risk.

"It wasn't an issue when we were playing.

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"The younger players might now have an element of, 'well I'm not going to do it.' "It might be a scenario, if a ball is being hammered from a distance, they might leave it."

Henry McLeish, who played for East Fife, and now chairs the elite academy in the area, said he endorsed Gordon Smith's view about children heading balls.

He said: "I think there should be an immediate group established by the SFA to inquire into the potential risks facing our children and young players in relation to 12 years old and younger.

"The precautionary principle is vital, without diminishing in any way the real health benefits of playing football or the need for more research.

"If there are risks then we need to discuss them in an informed, open and constructive manner."

Elliott Paterson, who runs Cambuslang Football Academy, said a ban on younger children heading balls would be easy to enforce because "most young kids shy away from heading the ball".

He said: "I think certainly there's going to be a lot of parents coming to us with concerns.

"To be honest, from my own perspective kids tend to shy away from heading the ball so I don't feel it would dramatically change the youth game and it would certainly be of benefit."

Former England midfielder Ryan Mason has previously called for children to be banned from heading balls to prevent them suffering brain injuries.

The player's career was cut short at the age of 26 after he fractured his skull in a clash with another player