Football without headers? Then it's no longer football - but there is problem to solve

The scourge of dementia among ex-pros has forced a sensitive debate on the sport – and finding a good solution is so difficult

I challenge you, Scotland fan of a certain age, not to have a wee tear in your eye as you watch Joe Jordan next week on TV. I’ve seen the programme and I did.

It’s not the moment right at the end of BBC’s Scotland’s Icons of Football when – sweet though this is – with the retrospective over and the credits already rolling he leans into the camera and says: “Cannae forget Morton.”

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No, it’s when he’s talking about Gordon McQueen, his friend, teammate at Leeds United and Manchester United and fellow Scotland immortal who died last year. Jordan has a wee tear in his eye as he remembers “my best mate for 50-odd years”, how McQueen succumbed to dementia and his best options for avoiding the same fate: “Honestly, I think about that every day. I think: what can I do? What do I not do? I don’t want to go that way … ”

Kenny Dalglish celebrates Scotland's second goal, beating Wales to qualify for the World Cup finals in ArgentinaKenny Dalglish celebrates Scotland's second goal, beating Wales to qualify for the World Cup finals in Argentina
Kenny Dalglish celebrates Scotland's second goal, beating Wales to qualify for the World Cup finals in Argentina

We’ve just had Dementia Action Week and out of it has come a renewed call for heading the ball to be banned after the 2030 World Cup. Think about that: it would utterly change the game and maybe you reckon it would ruin football. But think, too, about the ruin caused to the final years of some players.

Every sad passing of a footballer from when balls were much heavier and no one knew any better – Billy McNeill, Jeff Astle and Nobby Stiles among them – has focused minds on the dangers and out of that increased awareness have come pressure groups.

It was research in Scotland – with Dr Willie Stewart and a team at Glasgow University establishing that footballers are three and a half times more likely to develop dementia – which prompted the Head for Change lobbyists to stage the first experimental match involving ex-pros with no heading of the ball.

But the Scots-based Heading Out are proposing the drastic action of the next but one World Cup – that’s when the tournament will roam across three continents – marking the very last time the steepling feats of the likes of Jordan and McQueen, top specialists both, will feature.

Gordon McQueen lost his battle with dementia last year.Gordon McQueen lost his battle with dementia last year.
Gordon McQueen lost his battle with dementia last year.

Dementia has forced an impossibly difficult debate on the game and no one really knows what a post-heading footballscape might look like. For instance, what happens at corners? Would they have to stop, too? And if so, would the attacking team have to give up the advantage of them? And if throw-ins remain then it presupposes all teams are comfortable receiving the ball at their feet when we all know that’s not the case.

Goalkeepers may not kick the ball up the park to the same extent anymore, now that all football is deep into the vogue for play resuming by passing out to defenders. But, really, are fans enjoying the faffing, the tedious back-and-forth and coaches with poor schmucks of limited skillsets at their disposal competing in a kind of Pep Guardiola tribute karaoke? I think not.

Thus the despairing cry directed at goalies will ring out: “Just effin’ hoof it!” Nowhere more so than in Scotland where we know our limits and do not watch football either in a scientific lab coat or the aesthete’s brocade smoking jacket.

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But, once the ball is propelled skywards, what happens next? Does everyone stand back to allow the ball to bounce, and maybe a few times more before risking an attempt to bring it under control? What if players forget the ruling and instinctively go in for a header? Would that rate as infringement worthy of a yellow card?

This column has no solutions; sorry about that. It can hope that research continues, victims are not forgotten and those administering the game do not lose sight of a serious issue. But regarding no more heading, ever, it’s almost impossible for someone brought up on Jordan and McQueen not to conclude that the change would be seismic; that football simply wouldn’t be football anymore.

We can all nominate headed goals we revere and never tire of respooling, again and again. Don’t be club-based and parochial – I’m not, 2016 Scottish Cup final, were there any headers that day? – and instead think just of Scotland. Think of Alan Gilzean vs England in 1964, of Denis Law vs the same mob two years later, of Kenny Dalglish in 1977 leaping balletically and the ball kissing that lustrous barnet to do down Wales and send us to Argentina. That continued a trend of vital World Cup-qualifying headers, a sequence begun by Jim Holton four years previously, crashingly, against old Czechoslovakia.

But really, given the poignancy of Jordan’s remarks in next Sunday’s profile on the Beeb Scotland channel, we could think just of big Joe and big Gordon. It was also in ’77 that McQueen cemented his place in Tartan Army lore and legend by cementing Asa Hartford’s free-kick past Ray Clemence. “That was me on the way back down,” the centre-half laughed as I pointed to the photograph of the goal in his man-cave when we met in 2015, having asked how he managed to jump so high. “And Ray had the cheek to dive - the ball was bouncing back out of the net before he’d moved!”

That was some year for headers, Jordan netting one in the World Cup qualifier against Czechoslovakia. There was another from him against Sweden four years later to complete a – cue Arthur Montford - sensational hat-trick. Three qualifiers, three headers, same end of Hampden each time, same handsome big fella who’d already lost four front teeth putting his head where it hurts.

Tragically for such imperishable memories and thrills there can be a price to pay.

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