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Heading in football may soon be given the boot

 

By Miguel Delaney

It is one of the game's great visceral rushes, the sight of a player leaping to power a header into the net, but it could yet lead to one of the game's greatest ever changes.

The announcement on Thursday that the FA and PFA have instigated a study into football's possible link with dementia has only increased the questions about heading a football.

Alan Shearer's realisation and concern was one of the most striking aspects of the recent 'Dementia, Football and Me' documentary, and comes soon after former Irish international Kevin Doyle announced his retirement citing medical advice on concussion. Depending on what further studies find and how the issue progresses, we may well see a situation where the entire rules around heading are altered.

Given that 22% of Premier League goals come from headers, it would even alter the dynamic of how the ball is played and the value of a corner.

Mark Herrick is a former Irish footballer who was famed for his heading ability, and he is working to prevent such a scenario - but, crucially, through an innovation and technology that gets on top of this issue and integrates all the proper medical and academic research.

The former Cork City and Raith Rovers midfielder founded Headrite Sports and developed a training aid to be launched today that represents the very first initiative to actually tackle this growing problem, and could well offer a landmark "preventative solution" in itself.

The idea is simple, but the methodology around it complex, with potentially manifold benefits. Having spent his youth honing his heading by suspending a ball from a rope, Herrick realised how valuable this could be and how much of it could be controlled to the benefit of the skill of players and their health.

He and co-founder Liam Frawley consulted with the relevant literature to construct a sophisticated but affordable version of this, that also uses an adjustable suspended ball - foam for children - and incorporates wearable technology to monitor performance.

It may be particularly crucial for children - already banned from heading balls in the USA up to under-11 matches - and will by definition greatly minimise the amount of medium-to high-impact headers players just hit over a life-time. Quite simply, they will be able to train without the physical concerns.

Herrick said. "It's our contention that federations, governing bodies, clubs are all going to need a policy on heading.

"If you go into any labour-intensive environment, you do lifting and handling courses.

"Yet we're sending underage players out, challenging with others, having never practiced heading properly.

"This is also an era where we believe that kids do not practice in the park as they did, and with that we're saying the only exposure kids get to heading - or don't get - is through their club. The clubs are now totally responsible for bringing the players up to speed with a skill that's important."

This is what the Headrite training aid allows, without any of the greater concerns.

"It was born out of something I used in my back garden. I knew my timing had improved from this type of practice. What we've done is taken an age-old training method and added sophistication and technology of it."

As well as the extra sophistication of the aid, and how it can be easily adjustable for all ages, they have also developed specific training drills for the technology.

Herrick and the team have worked with Sterling University, who featured in Shearer's documentary, and UCD, who now committed a Masters student to working with Headrite for further research. He accepts this is far from the only solution. There may be a lot to come into the game, and the type of balls used in winter weather may have to be looked at.

"That's one thing we're conscious of and trying to address arguing if we keep this skill, we can mitigate against some of this," Herrick says.

This may well be the start of something, and potentially be key in any discussion about the end of heading as we know it.

Belfast Telegraph

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