Finally, Professor Willie Stewart went there. To the only place he could logically go. To the place football has never before ventured, to the challenge it has never been brave enough to confront.
He looked at his latest paper. The one from his team at the University of Glasgow that directly links degenerative brain disease to the length of a professional football career and field position.
The more frequently a player heads the ball, the longer his career continues, the greater his chance of incurring a debilitating neurological condition, like dementia.
Professor Willie Stewart questioned whether heading is needed for football to continue
Professor Stewart, the leading expert in the field, has always resisted pushing the doomsday button. He has always been sensitive to the sport and its resistance to change. But he’s also a medical professional. It’s not his job to reassure against all evidence, to, in effect, lie. So he said it. The only thing left to say.
‘Is heading absolutely necessary for football to continue?’ Professor Stewart asked. ‘That is the question. It is called football, not head ball.’
Note the measured language. Professor Stewart was still mindful of the sport’s fragile sensibilities; still conscious of how long it has taken to get even this far. But nothing he has done to here has proved anything other than repeated heading of footballs significantly increases the chance of brain deterioration in later life.
And we can argue that it is the training where the damage occurs, the repeated heading drills, many repetitions across a short space of time. Except this research suggests a direct link between playing position, time in the game and illness.
So those are match situations. And, true, those players who are going to head the ball in games will also spend more time heading in training. Yet if training time for heading is strictly limited — as it is from this season — it will decline as a skill, so why would any coach go down that tactical route in a match? Over time, heading’s importance will decline.
So ban heading? No, nobody has said that. All Professor Stewart has asked is a question, and not a greatly outlandish one. Could the game survive without it? And here is the most incredible thing: no-one has ever tried to find out.
Not FIFA, whose slogan is ‘For the good of the game’ but who display no great urgency protecting those who play it. Not even our own Football Association who are in the vanguard compared to most countries — last March it was reported that just five of 211 national associations had adopted the new concussion protocols — but have never tried to see what the game might look like if players couldn’t head the ball.
This is all that is being asked. How would such a game unfold? Would it be ruined? Would it be boring? Would it change so irrevocably that it would no longer resemble football to most eyes?
Heading has been proved to increase chances of a degenerative neurological condition
Earlier this year Gary Lineker who, as a centre forward was in one of the field positions where heading was more likely, even if it wasn’t the biggest part of his game, made the same point.
‘It would be interesting to see what football is like without heading,’ he said. ‘They could do trials, like when they make law changes.’
Exactly. A trial. Like those that experiment with nuanced alteration to offside rules, or helped outlaw goalkeepers picking up the ball from a pass back. Except nobody has ever died from an offside judgment, or a backpass, whereas all available evidence suggests there is a potentially fatal price for heading footballs.
It would make sense to have a trial of football games played without heading
‘I’ve had conversations with Alan Shearer and Ian Wright, that come 10 or 15 years it might happen to one of us,’ Lineker added. ‘The odds are it will. It’s concerning.’
So why aren’t more people in positions of power concerned? Why aren’t FIFA, UEFA or the national associations actively seeking minor leagues or competitions that are prepared to be part of the most important trial in football’s history? One that could be conducted with full knowledge, rather than the dancing in the dark football’s dementia victims did for decades.
Players will say they want to win football matches and if heading is the best way to do that, then they will worry about the consequences in 30 years’ time. And maybe that would be the conclusion. That football without heading would be a moribund spectacle and an inferior sport and that now players are aware of the risks, they make a choice, we put protocols in place to protect them as much as is humanly possible, and on we go.
It could be, however, that football without heading — or with heading only allowed once the ball has bounced, perhaps, which would be a version of the rules governing aerial play in hockey, is exciting in different ways. We can never know unless we try. That is all Professor Stewart is asking: that we try.
There will be vocal opposition to football without heading but it should at least be trialled
Timo Werner has been explaining the tribulations of his first season at Chelsea. ‘When you play good you are the hero everywhere,’ he explained, ‘but when you play badly it is a totally different story.’
Indeed. It’s a result and performance-related game. Otherwise, why keep score?
WEST HAM CAN’T RISK £35M ON LINGARD
Jesse Lingard wishes to fight for his place at Manchester United. Manchester United want to sell him for £35million. West Ham won’t pay it. A case can be made for them all.
For Lingard, Manchester United are better than West Ham. For any player Manchester United are a better option than West Ham if they can make the team: and Lingard believes he can.
Solskjaer, in all likelihood, thinks he can’t. Not in his best starting line-up anyway. It therefore makes sense, if United get a good offer, to sell.
Jesse Lingard was anonymous in West Ham’s last few games and they cannot waste money
And £35m would be a decent price, given Lingard’s status before he went on loan to West Ham. So why won’t they pay? Look at Lingard’s spell in London. In his first 10 matches, when opponents did not appreciate his potential impact unless guarded closely, Lingard wreaked havoc.
He scored nine goals in those matches, helping propel West Ham to European contention. Then teams began making special provision for him, which is what happens to every forward at United. Without a brilliant trick or two it is hard to escape the attention.
The goals dried up. In his final six games, Lingard did not score and became largely anonymous. West Ham cannot afford to pay £35m and have that happen again. They cannot afford another Felipe Anderson.
SKY BRONZE IS RESULT OF RUTHLESS RECRUITMENT
Nobody had to recruit Sarah Hardcastle to swim for Great Britain at the 1984 Olympic Games. She was an extraordinarily gifted athlete, who happened also to still be a pupil at Shoeburyness High School in Southend-on-Sea. She won silver and bronze in Los Angeles and was, until this week, the youngest British medallist at the summer Olympics.
Not the youngest British Olympic medallist, because that was Cecilia Colledge, a figure skater who won silver at the 1936 winter Games. She wasn’t recruited either. She was born and lived in London, where her father was a surgeon, eminent in the field of throat cancer. There is still a substantial fellowship fund in the family name at the Royal College of Surgeons of England.
Yet these Olympians, Hardcastle and Colledge, will now be erased from the record books and replaced by Sky Brown, who has become the youngest British Olympic medallist with a bronze in the women’s park skateboarding. And Brown most certainly was recruited to this country’s cause because she was born in Japan, and lives in Japan, apart from those months when she resides in the United States. And she is a wonderful athlete; courageous and competitive, but with the winning demeanour and energy of a supremely gifted 13-year-old.
Sky Brown won a bronze medal at the Women’s Park Skateboarding final in Tokyo
Yet there remains an element of expediency about her Britishness. It is her father’s nationality, so there is no question she qualifies. But Brown was targeted after she impressed as a nine-year-old at a competition in Bath. Great Britain scouted her; otherwise she would compete for Japan. Probably.
Japan won gold and silver in Brown’s event in Tokyo. One of the girls, second-placed Kokona Hiraki, was even younger, just 12. And Japan have five of the world’s top 10 female park skaters; and two of the top five street skaters. As a British athlete, Brown has no competition. Her nearest rival, Bombette Martin, is ranked 27th in the world. The explanation for Brown’s recruitment is that Team GB were more relaxed, and that appealed.
Yet how relaxed do you have to be if you’re out poaching children of primary school age? Team GB can hardly play the cool uncle. Behind that cheery, laid-back façade is a ruthless recruitment programme that will lose nationality in the paperwork if there’s a medal in it. And without young Sky they’re nowhere.
You may find this mean-spirited. Our medallist is 13. Who would begrudge a 13-year-old girl this moment of pure joy and wonder? Yet Hardcastle was 15. Just because she’s 52 now does not mean she wasn’t immensely proud of her record. Angie Thorp was utterly distraught when her British 100metres hurdles record was broken by Tiffany Porter, recruited by Team GB once it became apparent she wasn’t going to make the American team.
The first British medallist on skis is Izzy Atkin, an American teenager when she was recruited, later landing a milestone achievement that would have been truly special had it been recorded by an athlete who genuinely came from a country that didn’t have significant winter sports facilities — unlike Massachusetts or Utah, where Atkin spends her time.
Brown represented Team GB despite spending most of her time in Japan or the US
Perhaps you think none of this matters. Perhaps it’s just about the medals, and the resultant funding. Team GB is not alone in exploiting the shifting sands of modern nationality.
In a globalised world, so much is grey. Mark Bullingham, the Football Association chief executive, says that 80 per cent of the young players in England’s age group teams have dual nationality. And Sarah Hardcastle’s daughter, Eve Thomas, competed at the 2021 Olympics but for New Zealand, because the family emigrated there when she was three.
It’s complicated, true. All the more reason, then, to fight hard to preserve the sanctity of international sport, and what sets it apart: the best of ours versus the best of yours. It’s not just about where you’re at; it really should be where you’re from, too.
LET’S CALM DOWN, IT’S EVENTING
The Olympics are grand, but they’re not football. We love them because these sports only come to the public’s mind every four years. They’re not the national obsession, so the external pressures are not quite the same.
When England were due to play Germany in the European Championship this summer, Sam Quek, hockey gold medallist, compared the positive attitude the players should take into the game to Great Britain finally defeating Holland in their gold medal match in 2016.
One difference. Nobody outside the world of hockey — so pretty much nobody, sadly, because it’s a fabulous sport and deserves more attention — really knew that Team GB didn’t often beat Holland. It wasn’t engrained in the national psyche like playing the Germans at football.
Eventing is not prominent in the national consciousness in the way football resides there
It wasn’t the source material for entire episodes of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?; songs hadn’t been written about it; there were no newspaper front pages prior to the event. Win or lose — it’s GB in the hockey. No one has ever been hung in effigy for losing a hockey match.
Equally, a headline this week said that Britain’s eventers had ended 49 years of hurt since the last gold medal in Munich in 1972. This rather overstated the position the sport holds in the nation’s consciousness.
Lads, it’s horses. It’s a bloody hard sport; it’s a bloody dangerous sport; it requires no little skill and bravery and we are immensely proud of the team who stood atop the podium. But nobody was really hurting. Eventing’s coming home? Not even Baddiel and Skinner could get a chorus out of that.
When Australia and New Zealand pulled out of Rugby League’s World Cup some very bullish stances were taken. Players were considering switching national allegiance to play in the tournament, we were told.
There was always a whiff of desperation about that statement. The tournament has now been put back a year which was always the most likely outcome. The presence of three nations make the World Cup viable, and without two of them it couldn’t possibly go ahead.