Parents face a tough decision after study links heading a football to long-term brain damage


Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

There is uncertainty as to whether parents should allow their children to header a football after a study suggested it could lead to dementia.

Research published earlier this week revealed for the first time that repeatedly heading the ball could result in long-term brain damage.

The study examined the brains of five retired professional players and one committed amateur, who all developed dementia in their 60s.

It has led to former footballers, including ex-Norwich City star Iwan Roberts, saying they would support a ban on under-10s from heading the ball.

But youth coaches from across Norfolk have said until a link is proven, it will be up to parents to decide if their children are safe to do so.

Gary Howes, manager of the Sprowston Hawkes under-10s team, said aerial challenges and headers rarely happened amongst younger players.

'If someone said they don't want their child to head a ball, they would not be forced to do it - in the same way they would not be forced to anything else,' he said.

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'I don't believe I have ever built any training sessions around doing lots of heading because it happens so rarely with the younger age groups.'

Mr Howes added there were also rules in place reducing the amount of heading in youth games.

He explained: 'The retreat rule was brought in to encourage the team to play from the back rather than have the goal-keeper boot it up the pitch, which could increase the chance of someone heading the ball or being involved in an aerial challenge.'

European football's governing body, Uefa, yesterday announced it had commissioned a research project into the issue.

Its study, which begins today, aims to help establish the risk posed to young players during matches and training sessions.

The initial research found that the brains of four retired players - examined in post-mortem - contained chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) pathology.

A further two had signs of Alzheimer's disease.

CTE has been linked to memory loss, depression and dementia and has been seen in other contact sports.

The study comes after two former Norwich City players - Duncan Forbes and Martin Peters - both became victims of Alzheimer's disease.

Ex-City legend Dave Stringer, 72, who played in defence for Norwich between 1964 and 1976, said: 'If it is proven that it does do damage, then obviously it is something we should think about for those playing at a young age.

'But [until then] that is a decision they [the parents] have to make on their own. If they feel there is a some threat to their child's health, they have to take that decision themselves.'

'There are so many different aspects to it because there are many people in different professions who suffer with dementia.

'My mother had it when she got older and she never headed a football in her life.'

The Football Association (FA) said it supported the latest research.

Its head of medicine, Dr Charlotte Cowie, added that the organisation agreed with the Professional Footballers' Association to jointly fund further investigation.

Norfolk FA said it would fully support any recommendations once the research has concluded.

Meanwhile a spokesman for Suffolk FA said it had not previously considered banning young footballers from heading the ball, adding: 'Until such time as the results of research say otherwise, any possible ban will not be considered.'

A spokesman for Norwich City FC, which runs its own youth academy, said the club complied with all FA regulations regarding the heading of footballs.

He added: 'We are aware that Uefa is starting some research in this area and the FA has also committed to ongoing research.

'Should there be any regulatory changes as a result of that research, we would of course comply with them.'

Professor Huw Morris, of University College London Institute of Neurology, said the initial study results show more research was urgently needed in the area.

But he added that the risk for people who enjoy playing football in their spare time was likely to be low.

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