Grey Neutral Weekly: Arsenal’s fall, dementia’s rise and problems with mavericks

CHELSEA’s victory against a tepid Arsenal was relatively easy, but given the Blues have spent well over the past two seasons, and the Gunners clearly haven’t, the home side can be forgiven for looking lightweight. In the cold light of day, Arsenal’s board may have to admit to themselves they simply do not have the right manager or approach to player acquisition. By the time Arséne Wenger left the club, they were already drifting away from Champions League contention, but since then, they have fallen two notches in the hierarchy, from Europa League to nowhere – not even the Conference League. And they cannot blame a lack of spending – in the past four seasons, Arsenal have the second highest net spend at £ 326 million, a figure beaten only by Manchester United (£ 356 million). 

Their gross spend for that period totals £ 425 million, somewhat higher than Liverpool and Tottenham and around £ 50 million less than the Manchester clubs. This summer, they have been Europe’s biggest spenders, but how long will they have to wait to reap the benefits? Getting it right in the market is not easy – Chelsea, for all their wallet power, have had a number of ill-judged signings in the Abramovich.

Arsenal currently look directionless, from the disconnect between fans and owner through to the team management. Against this backdrop, it is hard to see Mikel Arteta lasting too long at the Emirates. Once more the problem of ill-thought succession planning has reared its head, Manchester United have laboured through the post-Ferguson era, Arsenal have paid the price of hanging on to a coach who had been overtaken for too long.

Surely, it’s time to be more proactive about football and dementia?

Another week, another victim. This time, it is former Liverpool midfielder Terry McDermott who has been diagnosed with dementia. Last week it was Denis Law. It is becoming all too common. The list goes on: Bobby Charlton, Jackie Charlton, Peter Bonetti, Nobby Stiles, Martin Peters, Billy McNeill and of course, Jeff Astle and many others. Surely, it is time to screen footballers well before they hang their boots up to monitor their neurological state? 

Dr. Michael Grey from University of East Anglia, responding to the guidelines on heading the ball that limit players to 10 “higher force” headers a week, asked how this would be enforced: “The recommendations make no distinction based on gender despite growing evidence that women are more susceptible to head injury than men. There are biological differences between male and female in both structure and physiology that warrant a more considered approach.” Dr. Grey pointed out that the new guidance appears to be restricted to adults and lacks any provision for children where heading the ball in training has been discouraged by the FA, albeit not enforced, and heading the ball in match play is still permitted.  “This is problematic due to the fact that the brain of a child is at significantly greater risk to brain injury than that of an adult. It is time to consider an outright ban on heading the ball for younger children – both in practise and match play, complete with an enforcement strategy.”

Admittedly, dementia used to be something was dismissed as part of old age, but we live longer than ever before and industrial disease has been identified across many types of work for years. Thumping your head has never done anyone any good, so it is time that safety measures should be implemented. Consider that companies spend lots of money or ergonomic furniture and training to ensure their staff are comfortable and safe. Football has to do likewise and closely observe their players in each and every game. It’s not rocket science, but it is surely sports science.

Why mavericks don’t get picked

Rod Liddle, writing in the Times at the weekend, recalled a time when some leading “flair” players just didn’t get picked by England. Jack Grealish, considered to be the latest in a long line of flamboyant individuals, was under-used in Euro 2020 and some considered it a slur on the £ 100 million player. Alan Hudson, one of the so-called “mavericks”, was capped twice, and others of his kind were also left counting their international appearances on one or maybe two hands: Peter Osgood (4), Stan Bowles (5), Rodney Marsh (9), Frank Worthington (8), Charlie George (1) and Tony Currie (17). Going back further, there was Len Shackleton, the “clown prince of soccer” who won five caps but no domestic honours. Fine players all of these chaps, but it is no surprise that an England manager in the 1970s would not call upon them in the trenches. Firstly, these players were unreliable and some had poor discipline records, secondly, England managers did not have the luxury of day-to-day contact with them, hence their window of influence was limited. Back in the days of Osgood, Hudson et al, Sir Alf Ramsey, for example, would not see his squad too often. He had to pick the men he knew would do their best for him. The most successful teams are not always the most exciting, hence only one of the aforementioned players won a league title (George, 1971) and between them, they won six trophies. Mavericks may have lifted us off our seats – and still do – but not every manager wants one in his team. Sir Alf and the Don certainly tried to steer clear.


Photo: Alamy

Euro 2020: When football witnesses a life and death situation

ANYONE watching the Denmark versus Finland group game, in the stadium or on TV, probably came away vowing never to listen to anyone who claims football is more important than life or death. 

It’s hard, even four or five days later, to erase the images of Christian Eriksen struggling for life and the reaction of his team-mates, distraught and tearful as they shielded their friend from prying eyes. Whatever happens in the rest of the tournament, the abiding memory of Euro 2020 will surely be Christian Eriksen.

Watching somebody’s life or death moment is harrowing, it also encroaches on a very private moment that really shouldn’t be shared with the rest of the world. Only a couple of months ago, I was involved in an incident where an elderly fellow went crashing to the floor across the road from me as I walked into town. There was a thud, a crack and a cry for help from his wife, as blood ran into the road. I ran across to help and he looked dead – his wife thought so, too. 

However, the emergency services came and 10 minutes later, they were still attempting to revive him. I think he died as I was ushered away by the police. This sad affair stayed with me for the rest of the day, indeed the entire week. Christian Eriksen’s fight for life was one of those moments. People were very shaken up. You didn’t want to look, but you didn’t want to look away as it felt as though we were all with him, rooting for his recovery. 

Happily, oh so very happily, he pulled through and although his playing days may be over, he’s young enough to have a rich, fulfilling career and family life. In subsequent games, it is noticeable that when a player goes down, people are just that little bit more wary. This is likely to be a lasting hangover from this confusing summer.

The fans were marvellous, an example to the fruit-cakes that often prowl the streets when there’s a major competition in progress. I’m biased, of course, but I wouldn’t have expected anything less from Danes and Finns. 

For football, it’s another question mark about the safety of the game and the well-being of those that play it. We’ve learned from our mistakes when it comes to crowds, their safety and security, but increasingly, there are concerns about players and how well they are protected from danger.

For some years, the issue about dementia and heading the ball has come to the fore. More and more, we hear of players dying with Alzheimer’s or similar conditions. In days of old, when footballs weighed a lot more than they do today, constant heading of the ball could leave the mark of the laces on your forehead. There’s a lot of research being done, but you do get the feeling tthere’s a reluctance to admit that constantly thudding the head with a leather ball can cause neurological damage. 

You can only assume that Christian Eriksen is/was a very healthy and fit individual. Equally, the tests and precautions that professional players undergo must be considerable. Good health is not something anyone can take for granted, not even finely-tuned sportsmen and sportswomen. But when a body is constantly under stress, there must be risks, both visible and hidden. It is feasible that going forward, club medical teams are going to pay even more attention to the physiology of their players.

What was surprising and somewhat disappointing was UEFA’s reaction. With so much emphasis on mental health in the modern game, did they not think that Denmark (and Finland) might be affected by what they had witnessed? To go ahead with the game, some two hours later, with players still shell-shocked, was foolhardy and unnecessary. Do they never factor in disruption? Does football ever factor in anything going wrong on or off the pitch? I think we know the answer.

Meanwhile, Christian Eriksen continues to recover. We’re pleased.


Photo: ALAMY