The spotlight has once again fallen on football with regards to how the sport is protecting – or indeed perhaps failing to protect - its players from serious head injuries and illnesses.
The spotlight has once again fallen on football with regards to how the sport is protecting – or indeed perhaps failing to protect – its players from serious head injuries and illnesses.
It is an issue which many feel the sport has failed to adequately address for far too long, but one which has now been thrust back into the spotlight following an increasing number of high-profile former stars being diagnosed with dementia.
Indeed, five members of England’s historic World Cup winning squad of 1966 have now been diagnosed with the condition, including Nobby Stiles, who died aged 78 last month, and Sir Bobby Charlton, who is now 83.
This weekend, there was also an incident in a Premier League match which saw Arsenal player David Luiz allowed to play on despite being involved in a sickening clash of heads with Wolves’ Raul Jimenez.
Play was stopped for 10 minutes and both players were given oxygen and treated, but whilst Jimenez was carried off the pitch and taken to hospital with a fractured skull, Luiz was allowed to play on before eventually being substituted.
After suffering such a heavy hit to his head, the decision to temporarily allow him to continue playing was one which brought stinging vocal criticism from former England captain Alan Shearer, who says not enough is being done to protect players.
He used his position to call on the sport to immediately follow the lead of others, such as rugby and cricket, which have implemented specific protocols around head injuries and concussion, such as introducing ‘concussion substitutes’ which allow players to be checked properly before being allowed to resume play, or replaced.
“Football needs to get real. It needs to wake up,” Shearer said.
“It needs to get serious – not next year, not next month, not next week, now. We’re talking about life and death here, and players’ careers ending. It is just not acceptable. It has been going on for far, far too long.”
Little has changed since first case of ‘industrial disease’ and heading related death 18 years ago.
It is to be hoped that such passionate and strong words from a man of Shearer’s status in the game will hopefully help bring about serious change faster than currently planned.
For too long football has appeared reluctant to change.
Let’s not forget, it was way back in 2002 that a coroner ruled that former West Brom and England star Jeff Astle died aged just 59 of ‘industrial disease’, having suffered from a degenerative brain disease, brought on by the repeated heading of a football.
We are now 18 years on from that ruling, one which should have been the catalyst for change, and yet little has changed with regards to protocols.
Significantly though, I feel there has been a change in the attitude amongst those who have played, and continue to play the game.
Two years ago, when Hudgell Solicitors held a seminar at which experts from the medical and legal professions highlighted the duty of care on sports clubs and organisations to protect competitors from illnesses linked to concussion injuries, there was perhaps still a reluctance from those deeply involved and passionate about football to see the need for change.
However, I firmly believe attitudes have now changed, and that the days of people believing that heading the ball constantly and head injuries are simply ‘part and parcel’ of the sport have long gone. We have to look at the evidence and act accordingly.
A report published in 2019 found that ex-professional footballers are three and a half times more likely than the general population to die of dementia.
Nobby Stiles’ World-Cup winning teammate Sir Geoff Hurst has said heading in training was “probably more detrimental” to players than in games whilst Chelsea manager Frank Lampard has been quoted as saying football must ‘act now to make sure we are not just sitting on the problem’ and that he is ‘fully backing any movement that looks further into it for players in the past, present and future’.
How many warnings can football ignore?
Players past and present are in agreement that change has to be made, and that is why the spotlight is now so firmly on the sport’s organising bodies to act and prevent future serious injuries.
Thankfully, children aged 11 are now not allowed to be taught to head footballs during training in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Now, football must act across all levels, from children to amateurs and highly paid professionals. Luke Griggs, deputy chief executive of Headway, the brain injury association, said: “Too often in football we see players returning to the pitch having undergone a concussion assessment only to be withdrawn a few minutes later when it is clear that they are not fit to continue.
“That is the very reason why we urgently need temporary concussion substitutes in football. You simply cannot take a risk with head injuries. Something is not right. This cannot be allowed to continue. How many warnings does football need?”
Unless the sport acts now, should there be more serious head injuries, and more illnesses of footballers linked to brain injury in the future, the questions being asked will be how many warnings did football ignore, and how many lives did that cost?