In October 2019, a University of Glasgow study revealed that former footballers are three-and-a-half times more likely to die from dementia caused by heading the ball.
Since then, the Scottish Football Association has moved to ban children under 12 from heading in training, with the English FA following suit in February 2020.
The FA says heading in youth matches is rare, and is therefore still permitted. Match analysis estimates that only around 1.5 headers per game in youth football.
Former England international Ryan Mason played his last game in 2017, fracturing his skull in an aerial challenge with Chelsea’s Gary Cahill while at Hull City. He officially retired in February 2018 amid concern over the risk surrounding him heading a football again.
Mason now coaches at former club Tottenham Hotspur, and has suggested that young players train with sponge balls to develop the correct technique and reduce the risk of injury.
The FA’s new guidelines stipulate that heading will be bled into training sessions gradually as players grow and physically develop. Under-12s will take one session a month, heading the ball a maximum of five times, with under-13s having one session a week.
They also advise that when introducing heading, the ball should be inflated to the lowest pressure allowed.
The United States Soccer Federation banned heading for children under 10 in 2015, but Scotland is the first European country to have done so.
Former West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle is likely the most well-known victim of dementia brought about by football. After his death in 2002, the coroner ruled that Astle had succumbed to an “industrial disease”, in part due to a life spent heading footballs.
English World Cup winner Ray Wilson passed away from dementia in 2018, and West Ham United legend Martin Peters died of the degenerative disease just before Christmas 2019.
The move has been met with mixed reaction. It’s been called “a vital part of football” and sparked frankly ridiculous “what next” shouts predicting a switch from playing on grass to gym mats, and banning whistles for fears of tinnitus.
I am of the opinion that not only can reducing the risk of brain injury or disease in football only be a positive step, it may also lead to better-quality play.
Though heading in youth matches is admittedly rare, I feel that if a player can take half a step back to receive the ball on their chest or foot and move the ball on the pitch, their technical ability must increase and they gain more experience of controlling the ball in different ways.
Having watched a lot of non-league and amateur football, it’s apparent that the ball is in the air much more than at higher levels of the game.
If Premier League players are at risk of injury, those playing semi-professionally, who still play for a living and heading the ball more are even more so. They also likely won’t enjoy the immediate medical response afforded Ryan Mason, who thankfully survived his ordeal.
Football is played on the grass much more than in 1966, and with lighter balls, but the impact of a career heading modern footballs concerningly remains to be seen.
That is not to say I am against a glanced injury-time header to win a game. Liverpool’s iconic 2005 Champions League final comeback began with one such effort from Steven Gerrard; Sean Raggett’s injury time header at Burnley in 2017 set up Lincoln City’s lucrative FA Cup quarter-final tie at Arsenal.
I would not be in favour of a ban on heading in matches, but Ryan Mason’s proposition of heading softer balls until the safest technique is second-nature makes perfect sense to me.
Heading is indeed “a vital part of football” and should be protected, but so too should the footballers of the future.
More research is needed into establishing a definitive link between heading and dementia. For now, though, protecting children’s welfare is much more important than youth football being up in the air.