There was a moment in the recent BBC documentary Dementia, Football and Me when presenter Alan Shearer was about to undergo an MRI scan. A close-up of him, hand-wringing and fidgeting, he was clearly worried what might be uncovered.
After years of heading the ball, sometimes more than 100 times a day in training, he was troubled by the growing association between football and the onset of dementia and, as his brain was about to be placed under the microscope, his fears for the game he loves were usurped by personal trepidation. But, he said, there was no point in shying away from whatever underlying issues were there.
It appears that finally, after years of families campaigning for answers, the footballing authorities have arrived at a similar conclusion.
Many will argue that it has been a long time coming but yesterday it was announced that the English FA and the Professional Footballers’ Association will co-fund a major study into whether football players are at greater risk of degenerative brain disease than non-players.
Working in collaboration with their Scottish counterparts, the research will be carried out north of the border, focusing on the physical and mental health of approximately 15,000 former professional footballers and comparing their results to the wider population.
The study, entitled Football’s Influence on Lifelong Health and Dementia Risk (FIELD) will start in January and will be led by Dr William Stewart and colleagues at the University of Glasgow and the Hampden Sports Clinic, with initial results expected within the next two to three years.
In the documentary, Shearer stated that he would be “asking questions that should have been answered many, many years ago”. The most pertinent: “Could the beautiful game be dangerous?”
It is a reality that those of us who love the game and recognise that heading the ball is an integral part of it, do not like to consider but, with so many famous names and former players being diagnosed with dementia and other degenerative brain diseases, the time has long-since passed when the facts are needed.
Legends such as Celtic’s European Cup-winning captain Billy McNeill, former Dundee United and Manchester United player Frank Kopel and World Cup winner Nobby Stiles are just a few in the long list of big-name players blighted by the illness, with the long-term effects of heading heavy rain-sodden footballs blamed.
That suggestion was given greater credence back in 2002 when former England and West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle died from brain injuries. The coroner recorded a verdict of death by industrial injury, ruling that repeated minor head traumas had been the cause of death and confirming him as the first British footballer to have officially died as a result of heading the ball.
The fact that the disease was one previously associated with punch-drunk boxers should have sounded louder alarm bells but there was a sense of denial, with those who preferred to bury their heads in the sand arguing that modern footballs are lighter, water-resistant and therefore harmless. But Dr Stewart, who will lead the new study, has been studying the potential links for more than a decade and believes the reality may be far less palatable.
The fear of many researchers is not simply the weight of the ball but the damage caused by the repetitive nature of training, in which guys such as Shearer say they would throw their napper at crosses and clearances more than 100 times every day to perfect their technique.
If that is worrying for adults, it is even more concerning for kids. In their research, the University of Stirling found that repeated heading of the ball, particularly over a condensed time period, could impair memory and the ability to carry out cognitive tests for up to 24 hours afterwards.
In America children under ten have been banned from heading the ball in training and in games but, while the Scottish Youth Football Association addressed the issue last year, saying they would “urgently” review their guidelines they say they will now await the outcome of this latest study before making any changes.
That is not good enough. Not with children’s health at stake. This study will take two or three years. How many kids could be unknowingly and unwittingly damaged by then?
No-one wants to rip the game apart or deprive kids of the chance to develop a key skill, not when definitive proof is still needed, but there are ways around it. Soft balls can be used in heading training drills, even more emphasis can be placed on playing the ball out from the back, keeping the ball on the deck and eradicating the hoofball, route one option at grassroots level. That kind of football is more pleasing on the eye. In all probability, it is also far kinder on the brain.