Matt’s Monologue: Heading the ball

Liverpool legend Ian St John has long suggested there is a link between dementia and professional footballers.

He points to several of his teammates being struck by the illness and thinks it could be down to the number of times they have headed the ball.

It is an intriguing argument. It is clear to see why anyone would think there is a connection. Yet his theory had always been dismissed by the top brass. Until now.

Last week, a report by UK scientists was published and showed “players who head balls may be more prone to developing dementia later in life”.

They examined five former footballers and discovered all went on to develop dementia in their 60s, having enjoyed a long professional career.

For now, the research is only tentative, and far more is needed before anything can be conclusively proven. But it does raise several important questions for the Football Association – and their counterparts across the globe.

Firstly, though, it is worth noting that footballs now compared to in the 20th century are much lighter. They are easier to head and made of much better materials.

This is in fact something St John mentions himself.

“I talked about it to the PFA a couple of years ago,” he said. “Their answer was: ‘Well, women get dementia, so therefore it’s not an industrial injury’. Which is a load of nonsense isn’t it?

“I don’t know about today’s light ball, but in our era, heading that heavy ball day in and day out – not just at matches but training as well – the lads know at this stage of their lives we’re either dying or have dementia.”

So does this mean we should stop children from heading the ball? I would imagine that is very unlikely to happen. If it did, it would take a certain art form out of the game. How would Jim Steel have made a career for himself?

But it actually is already banned in America. Under 10s have not been allowed to head a ball since 2015, whilst those aged 11-13 can only practice it in limited training sessions.

US Soccer brought in to the ruling because of fears over concussion and head injuries after a report in 2010 found 50,000 children had been seriously hurt.

Yet saying that, I was speaking to former Everton youngster Mark Quayle the other day. His son plays junior football and he argued that very rarely do players of that age head the ball anyway, because they do not have the power to kick it that high.

It is a sticky area. But I would not be surprised if the FA followed suit. Especially if more compelling evidence is presented their way.

I will finish with a final remark from St John, who claims that six of his Liverpool teammates are now suffering from dementia.

“How many goalkeepers have got it over the years? If they did a survey, it would be interesting if the answer was none, which means that the goalkeeper – the only guy on the field who is not heading the ball on the field – is OK.”

He has certainly got a point.


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