Commentary Box: Heading for trouble

Photo: James Mitchell (CC BY-SA 2.0)

WE’VE ALL headed the ball in our playing days, the eldest of us even remember the days of heavy spheroids with laces that left a mark upon impact. Most of us didn’t do it for a living, though. The sad tale of West Bromwich Albion’s Jeff Astle and the more recent news that Martin Peters, one of our World Cup heroes, is suffering from an illness that may have been induced by constant heading of the ball is a reminder of the fragility of life. There seems to be more and more cases coming to the fore at the moment.

What is the solution? Should we go down a path that ends with heading being outlawed, the whole game of football will be transformed. Just consider how heading has shaped the history of the game worldwide. Recall those glorious moments that have been created by the meeting of forehead and leather – Geoff Hurst sending the ball past the Argentinian keeper with a glancing effort in 1966, Keith Houchen’s diving header in the FA Cup final in 1987, David Webb’s winning goal for Chelsea in 1970 and so on and so forth. There’s also been some terrific exponents of the art of heading. Astle, of course, was right up there, and Peters himself was a master of the well-timed arrival. But while we might have marvelled at their skill, these poor fellows were doing themselves untold damage as they thrilled the public.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that greater medical scrutiny is going to emerge from the discussions going on at present. We may be on the brink of a time when players have to undergo neurological tests and surveillance – before, during and after the game – to ensure their well-being is being monitored.

This is perfectly reasonable, but if the same level of care and attention is to be applied at non-league level, it is going to bring new responsibilities to clubs. For starters, non-league outfits generally don’t have the level of sophistication that would be required, so it would mean a sea change around the provision of medical care and facilities at the ground. This is not something that can be neglected if we do move in that direction. We’ve recently seen what happens when safety becomes a balance sheet issue.

It is difficult to imagine football without the thrill of a heading duel, a thumping effort finding the net from a corner, or a spectacular dive that combines agility and poise. It will also be difficult to supress something that has been instinctive for so many years. Are we looking at a game that will be played at below head height, similar to how five-a-side used to be conducted?

Perhaps innovative medical folk can come up with a solution – after all, for every problem in life, there’s always a sub-industry that springs up to try and circumnavigate an issue, and you could imagine some form of protective padding that could be worn on the forehead to cushion the blow of the ball hitting the head – just consider the masks that protect facial injuries and the suchlike. All said and done, the safety of players has to be the number one priority.

But is this a case of apples and pears in comparing the tools of the trade down the decades? The footballs of the 1950s and 1960s are certainly very different from today’s balls. They’re much lighter today and there’s no lace and the material doesn’t become heavy when the weather is wet.  Of course, that is absolutely no consolation at all to the families of those players suffering from dementia caused by constant heading of the ball, but it may be a generational problem.

Importantly, whatever happens, however football tries to protect its professionals, it has to be applied right across the game – from the very top to schools. In short, we could be faced with a very different sport in the next decade – nobody wants to hear about another fallen idol that has become a victim of what is effectively an industrial injury. In the meantime, the men whose lives have been affected should remain in our hearts – we should never forget the likes of Jeff Astle, Ray Wilson, Martin Peters and other men who have made our Saturday afternoons. They gave more than just sweat to the cause.

This article appeared in the Non-League Paper on Sunday July 2, 2017

Report by Neil Jensen, GOTP Editorial


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