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Liam Beckett: Does health report take into account lighter footballs used in the modern game?

The dangers of heading the ball have been highlighted. Credit: INPHO/John McVitty
The dangers of heading the ball have been highlighted. Credit: INPHO/John McVitty

By Liam Beckett

The results from a special report into heading a football were alarming and rather startling.

The findings claimed that former footballers are three and a half times more likely to die from neurodegenerative disease than the general population.

The report, commissioned by the English Football Association and the Professional Footballers' Association, assessed the medical records of 7,676 men who played professional football and were born between 1900 and 1976.

Titled 'Football's Influence on Lifelong Health and Dementia Risk', the study was led by consultant neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart of Glasgow University and his findings report that the risk ranged from a five-fold increase in Alzheimer's disease and a four-fold increase in motor neurone disease, to a two-fold increase in Parkinson's disease in former professional footballers compared to population controls.

The data, facts and figures from this study are quite extensive and make for some interesting reading, however I believe we still require much more constructive debate and research before we succumb to any knee-jerk reactions.

Of course we must take heed of all medical research together with any subsequent advice offered, but we must also balance those findings with how the modern game and the actual footballs themselves have changed over recent years as well.

Back in the day, footballs were much heavier than they are now and when they got wet, they were almost as heavy as a medicine ball.

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I can well remember it used to be like heading a giant mound of putty and if you didn't connect just right with your forehead - or particularly if you just happened to head the big, ignorant lace - you could have been seeing stars.

However, the footballs used nowadays weigh but a fraction of what they once did and, although I've only had a secondary school education and neither am I an expert on neurology, I'd imagine that heading these lightweight footballs can't be considered anywhere near as dangerous as the old heavy-as-lead types.

We've also got to consider that the modern game is played much more on the deck than it used to be.

Years ago, the state of some of the pitches basically dictated the style of play and so the big, heavy ball spent a lot more time in the air with the result that players had to head it a lot more than they do today.

Although this recent survey highlights the dangers of heading a football, we've got to compare then with now and, by the same token, get things into some form of perspective.

I am reliably informed that some football academies have now been advised to curtail or even cease heading drills and exercises for kids under the age of 14.

Surely if this directive is implemented, it will change forever what constitutes the very concept and core principles of the sport of football as we've always known it.

I would consider myself to be a fairly responsible father who has sons and grandsons who love to play football and there is no way I would tell them to avoid headers.

This week's report suggests there may well have been dangers heading a football in years gone by, but until I see the findings of a new survey on heading a modern day football - and the number of times this happens in a game - I will consider those days to be long gone.

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