Football is heading for trouble now and in the future

I WAS struck by the sad news of the passing of Jimmy Conway an Irish footballer who was the only non-English player in the 1975 FA Cup Final.  Conway’s career took him from Bohemians in the LOI to the professional ranks in England with clubs including Manchester City and Fulham, earning 20 international caps and finishing his career in the US.

He has been recognized by the Portland Timber club as being instrumental in the growth of football in Oregon leading to them being a fixture in the MLS now. Jimmy was 73 at the time of his passing. In recent years he suffered from dementia, a condition his wife Noeleen believes is 100% directly related to his football career.

Noeleen eloquently spoke of the experience that any of us who live with this illness can relate to. It is pretty remarkable how common it is for families to be touched by neurological disorders these days. I’m pretty confident that everyone reading this article knows someone who has been affected by dementia in one of its many forms.

What struck me about this story was the certainty that Jimmy’s wife had that heading a football had caused her husband’s illness. This is something that has gathered momentum in recent times and there is a movement to ban heading from the game.

UEFA Nations League, Aviva Stadium, Dublin 13/10/2018 Republic of Ireland vs Denmark Ireland’s Shane Duffy goes close with a header Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

I must admit as a lover of the ‘beautiful game’ I feel uncomfortable with the movement towards sanitizing the sport. It is a little like taking the tackling out of Rugby and just resorting to playing tag.  However, we can’t ignore the findings of recent research from the University of Glasgow’s, Brain Injury Group.

The most disturbing findings from their 22 months of research being that by playing football participants were three and a half times more likely to suffer from dementia and other serious neurological diseases.

In fact the study argues that footballers had a five-fold increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s, a four-fold increase in motor neurone disease and a two fold increase in Parkinson’s. One of the champions of this research is Dawn Astle, daughter of former England international Jeff who died in 2002 of what the coroner described as an ‘industrial disease’ acquired from repeatedly heading a football.

What was shocking for Dawn was that the families of over 400 former players contacted her to say that they had watched their loved ones experience similar declines. The University of Glasgow study drew comparison from 7,676 former male professional players and more than 23,000 people from the general population.

The inference is that heading the ball is a significant factor in the development of these illnesses but obviously outside of measuring the impact of every header it is impossible to definitively draw conclusion. This led the FA to say that there is not yet enough evidence to change any aspect of the game.

Chris Sutton, former pro footballer, whose father Mike suffered from dementia called for an apology from Gordon Taylor of the Players Football Association.

“If Gordon Taylor had anything about him he would apologise to all his union members and their families who he has failed. His own members dying in the most horrible and humiliating way. He failed my dad and hundreds more.”

There have been many great players of the past who have suffered from various forms of dementia. Many came forward to support Dawn Astle’s initiative to raise awareness of the severity of the problem. Legends like Danny Blanchflower, Dave MacKay, several members of England’s World Cup winning team Nobby Stiles, Martin Peters, Ray Wilson and Jack Charlton (suffering from memory loss).

Ireland Soccer Training 12/2/2002 Former manager Jack Charlton Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Tom Honan

This is where the conversation becomes difficult as few who have played football would want to remove heading from the game, but the families of those affected by Dementia, Alzheimers, Motor Neurone or Parkinson’s have a right to a voice too.

Despite massive advancements in medical research we still understand so little about what is the cause these neurological disorders and diseases. For every negative study on the impacts of concussion and head trauma there are many more that highlight the link between a healthy heart and a healthy brain. 

Maybe footballers in the past have been more susceptible to these conditions because of lifestyle choices or alcohol consumption, but it certainly can’t be ignored that studies now tell us that simply by playing football you increase the risk to your mental health into the future. Let’s not forget that it is your loved ones that have to watch the shades come down. Food for thought.

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