Football players are generally fit and healthy; they tend to live long lives and have low chance of heart disease. That’s the good news. However, the perils of continually heading a football have been brought to the forefront of the news agenda recently with so many legendary former players succumbing to dementia.
The word dementia; what does that mean? In short, it is a disease characterised by memory loss, difficulty concentrating, planning, or even carrying out simple tasks like making a cup of tea.
Those are the challenges many former footballers face every day. Just last month former Manchester United hero Nobby Stiles died at the age of 78. He had been battling dementia for many years leading up to his death.
Former England captain turned Match of The Day presenter Gary Lineker readily admits that he’s also concerned that he may develop symptoms of dementia in the coming years.
“Being a former footballer and aging footballer, it is something that concerns me and it is terrible to see so many footballers being affected,” Lineker told the Sports Gazette.
“The percentage levels are significantly higher than the average population, so it is hard not to conclude that heading footballs at an early age repeatedly over a long period of time can cause dementia.”
It is frightening to think that a footballer is, according to research, 350 per cent more likely to get dementia than the average person. In many squads, including the 1966 England World Cup team, there are numerous heart-wrenching stories. Lineker is particularly concerned because five out of those 11 World Cup winning heroes have or had dementia.
“That’s an extraordinary percentage,” he adds.
“I think you can go a lot further than the ’66 players. Off the top of my head there are players from Leeds United, Nobby Stiles, Jeff Astle, Chris Sutton’s dad is another one.
“There are so many it is deeply concerning for everyone in football, especially for those of us who played. You wouldn’t be normal if you weren’t a little bit concerned.”
So why are footballers suffering from dementia in later life? When scientists looked at former West Brom and England striker Jeff Astle’s brain, they concluded that it was very similar to a boxer’s.
It has led other former footballers, including Chris Sutton and Mark Bright to launch a campaign to limit the amount of time kids spend heading the ball. But at the campaign’s heart has always been the families of former players with dementia, of which many feel totally ignored.
For a long time, former Celtic and Blackburn striker Sutton has been pushing for action. His father Mike, a former professional footballer himself, has dementia. Among the primary aims of Sutton’s campaign is to limit the number of headers in training.
The campaign calls for a maximum of 20 headers per training session and also the introduction of concussion substitutes. Sutton also believes that a complete structure of emotional, practical, and financial support should be on offer, adding that the PFA and the world’s biggest leagues should be supporting players suffering from the condition.
“Chris Sutton’s campaign to stop heading the ball too much in training for me makes sense,” says Lineker.
“You don’t need to head the ball in training really, you can either head it or you can’t. It is not that important to do in training repeatedly that’s for sure, so I think that would make a huge difference.
“It is worrying because I am 10, 20 years away perhaps from the age where a lot of players have seemingly got dementia type illnesses,” he adds.
“So it’s kind of worrying to be honest, but it’s good we are talking about it and footballers are standing up and demanding action.”
Although Lineker is much more vocal on the subject now, even during his playing career he was wary of the danger heading the ball represented. This led to him making a unique decision at the age of 20, while he was a young pro at Leicester.
“I spoke to [former Leicester teammate] Mark Bright today, he actually shocked me because he noticed that I never headed the ball in training. I didn’t think anyone would ever notice that because I didn’t talk about it, I just did it. I used to follow boxing a lot, I am still a big boxing fan, but you see the effects on boxers and I used to think why wouldn’t the ball have some kind of effect like that. Well, it seems that is the case.”
Lineker also recalls the typically old school training methods for defenders during his time at Tottenham in the late 80s and early 90s.
“I stood at the side of training pitches at Spurs, and they would get the goalkeepers to hit the ball high in the air so the centre halves would head it clear one after the other, and I would think… ‘that is not a good thing’.”
Dementia is regularly in the news at the moment following the death of Stiles, and the revelation that another World Cup winning legend, Sir Bobby Charlton, has also been diagnosed with the condition.
His former teammate, Sir Geoff Hurst has been vocal about making changes to the game for younger children and believes banning heading the ball for kids under 11 should be non-negotiable.
This is something the FA has now implemented, with a ban on heading training sessions for kids aged 11 and younger, while sessions are strictly limited for those between 12-18.
Lineker agrees that training is creating more contact than necessary and wants the restrictions to go further.
“I don’t see the absolute need to head the ball in training,” he says.
“I think that is a good start if they brought that in for under 11s; there is no reason for young kids to be heading the ball. I think it is common sense really, we obviously need to get better at concussion injuries.
“Yes, you can do free kicks and corners and similar exercises – that’s about positional play, you don’t have to head the ball.
“How many times would you head it in a match? It probably wouldn’t be that many.”
Premier League managers including Chelsea’s Frank Lampard and West Brom boss Slaven Bilic have also been calling for changes to training methods. They want more research to be done and for there to be clear guidelines, particularly for young people.
Lineker’s self-imposed heading ban will hopefully save him from suffering a similar fate to so many past footballers and, despite his fears, he is confident in the current state of his health. “Personally, I feel alright at the moment. I never had a great memory anyway,” he jokes.
Perhaps, too, Lineker’s approach could serve as a template for better methods moving forward. After all, if he could manage 330 goals without heading practice, is it really so necessary?