Heading a football is a risk - but life’s full of them

Norwich City's former striker Grant Holt heading the ball into the net against Liverpool at Anfield

Norwich City's former striker Grant Holt heading the ball into the net against Liverpool at Anfield in 2011. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images

I love heading a football. Strikers get satisfaction from scoring a goal, midfielders from setting up a striker who scores. But for us defenders, who occupy the tiniest sliver in the pie chart of game glory, joy is found in more prosaic ways.

The crunching tackle, the last-ditch slide in to deny a striker who is clean through on goal and even the perfectly-executed offside trap.

For me, though, nothing beats winning a towering header: timing the jump, beating your opponent and feeling the ball thump against your forehead and flying out of danger.

It gives me a buzz and always has - ever since I was old enough to play football.

It's just as well heading is a key part of football, for most of my opponents (and all of my teammates) would argue that my touch and control are better with my head than my feet.


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Though my love of heading is almost primal, it doesn't mean that I'm from the 'it's a man's game' or 'nanny state' school of responses to the latest fears of links between repeated heading and brain damage in later life.

MORE: New findings suggest footballers who repeatedly head the ball can end up with dementia The calls for more research are sensible - not to mention respectful to the ex-players who are battling Alzheimer's, and their families who are desperate for answers.

The likes of Jeff Astle, Duncan Forbes and Martin Peters might have developed the condition in any event - after all, it's increasingly prevalent among older people across the board.

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But years and years of heading heavy leather footballs in the 1960s and 1970s, effectively concussing their brains every time, cannot have helped.

There is, though, a world of difference between the balls they headed and the lighter balls that are used today.

In heavy rain and on quagmire pitches, the balls were more like medicine balls. Who'd want to head one of those?

Ex-Norwich City striker Iwan Roberts says he wonders whether his occasional forgetfulness is an early sign of brain damage from decades of heading footballs.

He might be right, or it might just be the same thing that afflicts all of us as we leave 40 in our rear view mirror.

I often forget things that I said a few minutes earlier and remembering a name is like shadow-boxing. Maybe headers have damaged my brain: they've certainly given me plenty of thumping headaches.

Or maybe other things that I've inflicted upon myself are at the root of it.

MORE: 'I can't help but wonder if it will affect me' - Former Norwich star Iwan Roberts on study linking heading the ball to dementiaI don't know and don't think I'll ever know. For even if science proves a link between heading footballs and brain damage, it surely won't be able to pinpoint why one player will suffer and hundreds won't.

Like so much of life, it's a gamble.

When I go onto a football pitch, I'm taking a calculated risk, knowing that I'll certainly be hurt in some way and hoping it isn't a broken bone or a ruptured cruciate ligament (I lost the bet on both counts in one go in 2009).

Whether I'll eventually develop brain damage is another roll of the dice.

The risks cannot be eliminated without banning heading and eventually making football a non-contact sport. The sport would be neutered and surely only be played on games consoles.

I also don't think there is any need to ban heading for under-10s.

The way football is being coached now, far more game time should be taken up with the ball on the ground. And when it is in the air, I see no harm in the youngsters getting their heads on it.

It's a fundamental part of the most popular sport in the world and is what they see their heroes doing on TV.

There is a growing tendency for parents to over-protect their children, seeing danger in everything they eat, drink, watch and do.

But risk is out there and so is fun. Let's not try to eliminate one at the expense of the other.

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