Friday, July 19, 2024

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Football - Heading For Change?

A Cristiano Ronaldo header during his time at Juventus

As a parent of children playing football- the youngest a current Chelsea in the Community player, the eldest having passed through their ranks up to Year Three- the FA's proposal to eventually phase out heading in youth football speaks equally loudly to both fatherhood and the fan in me…

 



Having caught furtive glimpses of before-school kickabouts for at least the last seven years on the school run, on top of my own two's matches, there is of course understandable concern around the potential for concussions/head injuries among the younger generation of players.



But equally, by taking some of the physicality out of the game, are those who preside over it actually doing it and those who play it a disservice? By which I mean would it not be better to limit it rather than omit it completely, just to give youngsters an alternative to the silky- smooth passing football as perhaps best exemplified by Arsenal's Invincibles, who seemed to caress the ball on its way into the net...



A greater flexibility in playing style would surely appeal to school and junior club sides, over being forced to endlessly repeat some tiki-taka inspired dogma, which might then be passed up into youth and ultimately senior football for those select few lucky enough to make it?



The emphasis seems to be on what the FA calls deliberate heading, covering age groups up to under eleven, covering junior league, school and cup matches, where previously heading was allowed during training but not in matches. And, of course, this being the FA they were keen to put a technical spin on the benefits of the new approach!



“Our aim is to also create more technical opportunities for players with the ball at their feet, allow for more effective playing time, and to reduce the amount of time the ball is in the air during a match.”

 

And it would seem that deliberate attempts to head the ball will be punished similarly to running in walking football- the concession of a free kick.



“Deliberately heading the ball is an offence punishable by an indirect free kick. The indirect free kick is taken at the point where the ball was deliberately headed, except:

 

Where a player deliberately heads the ball within their own penalty area, the referee will stop the game and restart with an indirect free kick to the opposition from the nearest sideline of the penalty area where the offence took place.”



This interpretation has in a sense already been trialled thanks to the efforts of Dr Judith Gates of Head For Change, a charity committed to further research around the impact of head injuries inspired by Dr Gates' experience of caring for her husband Bill, a former Middlesbrough defender. He retired at 29 after developing migraines, having made 283 appearances across nearly ten years, and would develop dementia in later life in common with many of his peers of a similar generation.



“Bill never headed a ball after he retired at 29, that's 50 years before he died. The damage was done then, though the disease spread through his brain in the intervening years.

 

What we really want to get across to young players is they are in danger, this is a problem for them now. Every day there is a kid somewhere heading a football and that's what we need to be focusing on.”




A friendly at Spennymoor Town (Bill's first club pre-Boro) in September of 2021 between the hosts and Team Solan, was the first match to be played with heading allowed only inside the eighteen yard box for the first half. With a blanket ban imposed for the second half, when a handful of former professionals took to the Brewery Field for a 5-5 draw before Solan won on penalties.



Mark Tinkler, himself a former pro and Boro youth coach, was the only player to fall foul of the adapted rules, his error coming inside the first five minutes!



“Yes, I think my instincts just said 'if the ball is in the air go and attack.” he said afterwards. Perhaps a line of thinking that will be phased out should the push towards no-head football gather steam?



Though there could be other ways around not being able to use your loaf.



“It brings a different dimension to your game - you have to think quicker, bring the ball down on your chest and find other solutions.”



Head For Change, for its part, has said it doesn't aim to completely eradicate heading as a part of football, merely to raise awareness around the issues associated with it as a part of limiting its use to safeguard the next generation of players, something Dr Gates' late husband was keen to do given his own experience with memory loss.



“Steps are being taken in the right direction so these actions are constructive. What we need for the future is more evidence, more research and more understanding, and to take steps to protect the players.”



And not before time, it would seem, as a study conducted just last year found that former professional footballers were almost three and a half times more likely to develop dementia. With retired players supported by the PFA, whose head of brain health, Dr Adam White, welcomed the findings.



“This is an important new study which supports previous evidence suggesting that footballers are at greater risk of dementia and poorer cognitive functioning in later life. [These studies] ensure that targeted and evidence-led action can be identified and taken to support and protect players at all stages of their career. Continued investment in this type of research will remain absolutely vital.”



In the meantime, though, what does the future hold for the next crop of youngsters? Is there a chance that no-head football will become the norm as opposed to an exception?



“Football is a game created by humans and played by humans and the rules have been modified before. We tend to assume that things we have taken for granted will never change, but they can be.”



Just how much, and whether for better or worse, remains to be seen.

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