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IFA making moves to tackle football's ticking timebomb

By Julian Taylor

It is an awful, recurring condition which requires no introduction. Dementia has an undoubtedly huge, debilitating effect for those living with the illness and their families throughout society.

However, there is one particular demographic where the disease is becoming more apparent.

Former footballers, who played between approximately the late 1950s to early 1970s, are increasingly at risk from cognitive impairment.

Constant heading of old, heavy, laced-up footballs and the occasional accidental clashing of heads, has been suggested by scientists to have made a significant contribution to this development.

New research has outlined possible links between heading the ball and the onset of dementia later in life, fuelling concerns over the risks inherent in the national game. How safe is it - even for emerging footballers - to consistently head a ball?

A number of high-profile players have either died or been diagnosed with dementia, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) - a related condition - in recent years.

Of course Alzheimer's is, regrettably, widespread throughout the general populace, but are those who played professional football for many years, in the prime of their athletic lives, more at risk?

Billy Bingham, Northern Ireland's renowned player and manager, has the condition as do England's 1966 World Cup winners Nobby Stiles, Martin Peters and Ray Wilson as well as Queens Park Rangers legend Stan Bowles.

It also emerged last week that Billy McNeill, Celtic's European Cup-winning captain, is living with dementia. Others who have also sadly passed away from the illness include West Bromwich Albion legend Jeff Astle - who was, crucially, noted for his aerial prowess - and former Scotland manager Ally MacLeod. Northern Ireland legend Danny Blanchflower, who died in 1993, was diagnosed with dementia too.

The game was, by common consent, tougher and more unforgiving in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, using basic leather balls, which gained weight from saturated, mud-splattered pitches.

In the UK, it seems only now are we beginning to understand that heading the ball daily in training and in games themselves is capable of having a damaging long-term effect for a number of ex-professional players.

Perhaps the trend still remains coincidental and some retired players develop dementia in parallel with the rest of society but, nevertheless, it is instructive to note those of a relatively young age.

Astle, for instance, was just 59 when he died in 2002. Crucially though, he had, according to his coroner, the brain of an 89-year-old as a consequence of heading footballs.

CTE, or 'punch-drunk syndrome', was first detected in boxers in 1928. However, it can only be diagnosed after death with both rugby players and American Footballers also vulnerable. Last year, the NFL admitted CTE has affected its players.

"It was originally thought that CTE was unique to boxers but over the last decade it is not just boxing, but other sports are affected, with more and more cases involving football," says Dr Willie Stewart, a Glasgow-based leading neuropathologist.

"The US has been so far ahead of us for a while and around 5-10% of sport-related dementia has been identified from data there. It is a football problem as well as other sports when it comes to repetitive brain injury.

"We haven't got to the stage of identifying the proper beginning of symptoms yet and it's only through a post-mortem that CTE can be identified."

Researchers from University College London and the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery have carried out a recent study with the report being published in the journal Acta Neuropathological.

The research, which remains anecdotal in footballing terms, is particularly interested in the period from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, essentially examining the issue for ex-professionals now in their late 60s or 70s.

Looking ahead, there are perhaps lessons to be learned for current players, especially youngsters, as well as football's governing bodies. There are concerns that retired footballers are developing CTE earlier than what would be commonly expected.

Frank Kopel, a Manchester United team-mate of George Best in the late sixties, before making a successful career at Dundee United, passed away with vascular dementia in 2014, aged 65. His widow Amanda is lobbying the Scottish Government to offer support to the families of those diagnosed who happen to be under state pension age, and therefore currently ineligible for free personal care assistance.

During a very poignant BBC interview she said: "This is causing heartache for a lot of ex-professionals. No one is asking for football or heading to be stopped, it's just about protecting younger players, as this can strike anyone in their thirties, forties and fifties who are being discriminated against."

In contemporary football, the balls themselves are lighter and move faster - in contrast to decades past, when players were generally expected to perform without complaint.

Former Scotland manager Craig Brown, who played for Dundee in the sixties, said: "The weight of those old leather balls could be horrific in wet weather. Heading the ball back then required a lot of courage and by God, the impact of it. You would shudder from the impact."

Willie Miller, a seasoned former Scotland international, added: "In my day I was involved in quite a few knocks but not as much as others.

"Back then, even as recently as the eighties, you were, as a player, just expected to get up from head knocks and get on with it."

Given the new findings that players from previous eras are potentially susceptible to memory loss and early onset dementia, termed by Astle's coroner as an 'industrial disease', proper systematic studies are long overdue.

There is growing anecdotal evidence emerging of how retired players are suffering. Former Celtic striker Chris Sutton spoke recently of his dementia-suffering father, Mike, who played for Carlisle United in the 60s and 70s, practising with medicine balls.

With protective measures in place for children playing soccer in the US, are steps being taken closer to home?

Michael Boyd, the Irish FA Director of Football Development, said: "Both the PFA and UEFA are looking at the impact of heading on players and, as an association that is a big part of the International Football Association Board, we're very much at the forefront of this.

"We're pushing hard to help and have brought out a concussion leaflet which is also used by Ulster Rugby and the GAA which is very informative and helps empower coaches, parents and volunteers."

The IFA is aware of the importance of possible dementia issues across all age ranges. Yet there is no present evidence that any potential danger of heading the ball is reducing the interest in children playing the game.

"Our programmes look at Masters football too," Boyd explains. "It is a live issue and all our coaches will be educated on this.

"We engage thousands of children with football every week and since September 2015 there has been a 16% increase in participation in the 4-24 age group.

"We use 'soft touch' leather balls of a smaller size as well as recommending that teams roll the ball out and keep it on the ground to minimise heading."

It is a subject which will not go away.

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