England and Scotland at odds over whether to ban children from heading footballs following dementia study

Henry Bodkin

England and Scotland are at odds over whether to ban children from heading footballs, after a landmark study showed a heightened risk of dementia.

Campaigners on Thursday welcomed reports that the Scottish Football Association (SFA) is preparing to ban heading in the under-12s game within a matter of weeks.

It follows the publication of major research by Glasgow University last October which found that former professional footballers are three-and-a-half-times more likely to suffer from dementia and other serious neurological conditions compared to non-players.

However, the Football Association in England is refusing to follow suit, and on Thursday night Government sources questioned the relevance of the research due to the fact modern footballs are not as heavy as the old leather balls.

The FA has launched a taskforce to review potential changes to the use of heading in training, which evidence suggests is when most of the damage takes place, due to its repetitive nature.

Alan Shearer having tests on the effects of heading, at Stirling University

But a spokesman signalled there are no current plans to change the rules south of the border, reiterating the organisation’s position that: “We don’t have any evidence to suggest that heading in youth football would be more of a risk than at other stages of a professional footballer's career.”

It contrasted with comments from the SFA doctor, John MacLean - also part of the Glasgow University team - who said: “We can’t wait on the evidence one way or the other on heading.”

“We need to take some sensible, pragmatic steps at the moment and that’s largely going to be about trying to reduce the overall burden, the overall times that young players head - and heading in training is much more common than in matches.”

The pressure on authorities to protect players has increased significantly over the past three years thanks to the involvement of former stars and their families.

Former England captain Alan Shearer has led much of the advocacy, collaborating with the University of Stirling for a BBC documentary in 2017.

The campaign has also been led by Dawn Astle.

Alan Shearer exiting an MRI scanner at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital.

Her father, former West Bromwich Albion and England striker Jeff Astle, died aged 59 in 2002 from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a type of dementia caused by brain injury.

The coroner ruled his death had been caused by the repeated trauma of heading the ball, describing it as an "industrial disease".

Ms Astle said: "We're very pleased, we applaud them for trying to put things in place to reduce the risk and not hanging on and hanging on and keep saying “more research, more research”."

The SFA is reported to be close to imposing such a ban in training, to be announced next month.

The United States has had a similar ban in place since 2015 but the SFA's move would make Scotland the first European country to impose such a restriction.

A Government source said: "The FA has set up an independently chaired Medical & Football Advisory Group which has concluded that more research is needed into why players had been affected, but that there is not enough evidence at this stage to make other changes to the way the modern-day game is played. 

"The data also does not show yet if there was a difference for players playing in different decades, whether concussion, heading, the old leather ball, different playing styles or other factors were casual.”

Headaway, the brain injury charity, welcomed news of the SFA’s reported ban but called for more research into the issue.

Peter McCabe, chief executive, said: “In light of the recent study undertaken by the University of Glasgow, which suggested that professional football players have a higher risk of neurodegenerative diseases than the general public, there does seem to be merits in considering such a move.”

Dr Magdelena Ietswaart, from the University of Stirling, published research in 2016 which showed how heading the ball during a football match could cause memory problems for up to 24 hours.

She told The Daily Telegraph that applying data from adults to children was “difficult”.

But she added: “We need to seriously think about the exposure that people are racking up as part of practice. It’s a good idea to reduce exposure.

“Practice drills is definitely something to think about.”