In Scotland we once thought of heading the ball as being close to an art form. We might not have invented the header in football but diving full-length to head a goal, down among the thickety tangle of legs and desperate boots – who was doing that before the great Denis Law, or at least performing the feat with such panache?
And remember when we used to qualify for World Cups? Remember how, three tournaments in a row, a crucial win at Hampden was achieved with a glorious header – same end of the ground, same player? That was Joe Jordan, of course.
Now in Scotland heading the ball is to be banned among children under 12. The SFA has acted on a University of Glasgow study which highlighted the dementia risk and the rule will come into force by the summer. A good thing? Hard to argue when the research reveals that professional footballers are three-and-a-half times more likely to die of a neurodegenerative disease.
The ban seems quite Scottish, doesn’t it? And I mean that in a good way. We’ve been bold enough to crack down on smoking and introduce minimum pricing on alcohol while others have dithered. On heading, though, we’re at odds with England where they won’t be following suit and are questioning the relevance of the study.
As a parent of a boy at the age threshold – Spartans Under-13s, prefers midfield for those Scott Allan-esque reverse-passes but because of his height is sometimes pressed into service in central defence – I winced the other night at training when he got in the way of a fierce shot, stopped the ball with his head and staggered around for a bit. “Good block, Archie,” said his coach from the touchline. After a minute or two he was OK to resume although at home later he complained of a headache, and I don’t think this was because of the maths homework requiring his attention.
Heading is just about the last thing 12-year-olds learn to do. It wasn’t so long ago – just last season in fact – that the ball would bounce around the 3G and no one would go near it with the head the entire match. This is the first season of competitive football for my son’s team and it began with Archie scoring a header from a corner. He admitted later he hadn’t made proper contact and the ball had struck his nose. Nevertheless the intention to head it was there. I half-thought the opposition dads were going to join in the cheering.
Spartans Under-13s will start to head the ball more often, as will all teams at this age, then more frequently again as they get older. At training there’s the potential for far more heading than in games. Players whose roles require greater use of the head can be involved at the sharp end of set-piece practice. Last skill it might be, but it’s also potentially the most dangerous.
In 2002 the West Brom and England striker Jeff Astle, right, died aged 59 from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a type of dementia caused by brain injury. The coroner ruled his death had been the result of the repeated trauma of heading a ball, describing it as an “industrial disease”. Since then there’s been plenty of calls for research, and England’s Football Association says more is needed. But Astle’s widow Dawn is dismayed by this. “We applaud them [the SFA] for trying to put things in place to reduce the risk and not hanging on and keeping on saying: ‘More research, more research’,” she said. “I wish our FA would do it. I hope now one [association] has, they will all follow suit. It’s not like a metatarsal injury – this is something that kills you.” South of the Border, the Glasgow study has been queried – by government sources – because modern footballs are not as heavy as old leather ones. In weight terms, perhaps, with leather balls retaining water on wet days, but the heavier the ball the less likely a boy would be able to get it airborne in any case. Modern balls may be lighter but this makes them easier to send hurtling near heads. The skin is hard and, fully-inflated and struck with force, they can still stun, as Archie testifies. Progressing through the age categories, his team have always played with these kind of balls; the first time one bounced in my direction I was surprised how unforgiving and stone-like it was. So these government sources – they’re talking rubbish.
Cynics may moan about nanny state gone mad (again). Aged totem-pole centre-forwards like Tony Cascarino have said that heading was their best attribute so they wouldn’t – couldn’t – have changed the way they played. Other campaigners, like Frank Kopel’s widow Amanda, have welcomed the Scottish ban, while other ex-pros such as Ally McCoist have been in general agreement but are wondering how it can be effectively enforced. There’s also been concern that heading could eventually be removed from football completely, and Professor Willie Stewart who led the Glasgow research wants the ban to go further. “It’s not enough just to say ‘Let’s take heading out the game in under-12s,’” he said. “I think we need to look across the entire game – amateurs, seniors, professionals – and say: ‘Where else can we make changes to be effective?’”
We’re a long way from football without headers but it would be irresponsible of football’s administrators not to acknowledge changing medical evidence and try and minimise the potential dangers. Football is the world’s greatest game and the health benefits will still outweigh the risks, but if nothing is done and this research had been ignored, then parents would be entitled to discourage their children from playing.
Already it’s been suggested that Scotland, maybe more than some other nations, could benefit from heading becoming unfashionable. By keeping the ball more on the grass the players we produce in the future could be more technical, more skilful. It’s a laudable idea, but culturally does the Scottish football fan not want to see the ball in the air now and again?
We did when Joe and the Lawman were in their pomp. Leaping like salmon in October, hanging in the air as if they’d smuggled jet-packs under their shirts, and bulleting home headers with the velocity of strikes with the boot – these have been some of our all-time greatest moments.