Football is heading for a much safer game and a new way to play with the battle against dementia in players underway

FOOTBALL without heading, most supporters seem to think, will be half as exciting, rather like boxing with no punches above shoulder height.

But it seems to me that further restrictions are inevitable.

For a start, the FA advised last summer that only ten 'higher force' headers should be undertaken in any training week.

And so, the battle against dementia in former players has begun.

There will be further weaponry, you can take your next bet on that, although finding the safest point as soon as possible is critical.

Not just in football, either. Boxing and rugby must also scrutinise their practices.

For if heading carries the dangers research shows, then being regularly battered around the head by a man or a woman trying to knock the living daylights out of his or her opponent practically warrants court proceedings.

There is good reason for ex-fighters being called 'punchy'.

And there is some resemblance between stags clashing at high speed and rugby men thundering into one another, never mind cauliflower ears to cauliflower ears in scrums.

Liking the physicality of these sports may be a weakness but it is definitely not a mental remnant of Romans roaring at the slaughter of gladiators or crowds assembling to watch witches being drowned and, for afters, a king having his head chopped off.

No doubt when such barbarities were outlawed many among the populace sighed: “All good things come to an end.”

Is it to be this way with heading?

Before we get too squeamish, it is sensible to look at the options.

A couple were tried by retired professionals at Spennymor Town’s ground in Durham last weekend.

Up to half-time, players were allowed to head in the penalty areas and in the second half heading was exempted except by one forgetful centre-back.


That particular player, Mark Tinkler, a Middlesbrough youth coach, said of non-heading: "It brings a different dimension to your game – you have to think quicker, bring the ball down on your chest and find other solutions."

It’s all right for a defender to say that, but there’s many a striker who earned his fame, and pay, by heading goals.

It wouldn’t have done a lot of good for Tommy Lawton in the 40s through to Peter Crouch to try to chest a cross in a tangle of opponents, removing, too, one of the great thrills of the game, a striker soaring to deliver as precisely as a cue on a snooker ball.

By their recent call for referees to allow stronger tackles, Fifa have acknowledged that the nature of the game must remain physical and while a government might decide that heading should be outlawed, they would be wise to hold off and ask for other measures.

Researchers have found that footballers are 3.5 times more likely to die from dementia than the general public and this increases with defenders and also on the length of a player’s career.

One investigator warned: “Football should be sold with a health warning.”

A sequence of 1966 World Cup-winners, Jack Charlton, Martin Peters, Nobby Stiles and Ray Wilson all died with dementia and Sir Bobby Charlton has it.

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West Brom legend Jeff Astle was of the same generation and died at only 59. Few people would any longer question his family’s campaign over the risks of heading.

Perhaps these are not so great among children and certainly they are not with a lighter ball than the leather-laced lump which Astle headed with such aplomb.

On recent evidence then, it cannot be too long before heading is severely limited, although I wouldn’t go as far as former England captain Terry Butcher who says it should be banned – and not missed.


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