Football and dementia: Ban heading in training if linked to brain condition, says Slaven Bilic

Football and dementia: Ban heading in training if linked to brain condition, says Slaven Bilic
Sir Geoff Hurst on the ‘enormous amount of time’ spent heading in training

Heading footballs in training should be stopped if it is proven to be linked to dementia, says West Brom boss Slaven Bilic.

World Cup winner Sir Geoff Hurst said heading in training is “probably more detrimental” to players than in games.

The players’ union, the Professional Footballers’ Association, is creating a taskforce to examine further the issue of brain injury diseases in football.

“What solution they are going to find, I don’t know,” said Bilic.

“If they find out through the research that heading the ball 10 times during training is going to cause you dementia, then let’s stop it.

“For me, the great thing is they are talking about it and recognising it.”

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.

The introduction of a taskforce comes amid criticism from the family of Hurst’s 1966 World Cup-winning England team-mate Nobby Stiles.

Stiles’ family said football needs to “address the scandal” of dementia in football.

The ex-Manchester United and England midfielder died in October, aged 78, after suffering from dementia and prostate cancer.

Sir Bobby Charlton, 83, has also been diagnosed with dementia – making him the fifth member of England’s World Cup-winning squad to have been diagnosed with a brain injury syndrome.

Bilic added his players will not stop heading the ball in training as it stands and that preventing it in games would mean “it’s not football any more”.

Aston Villa head coach Dean Smith said “no stone should be left unturned” in the research.

Smith’s father Ron, who was not a professional footballer, had dementia and died after contracting coronavirus in March.

“It’s one of the toughest things to go through, seeing parents suffering with dementia,” said Smith.

“We need to make sure there is no stone left unturned to go and find out whether there is certainly a correlation between heading a football and dementia.

“Until we get that, it’s very difficult to change the game.”

Neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart, who conducted the research commissioned by the PFA and the Football Association, said a “level of evidence” that links heading with dementia “beyond reasonable doubt” may not be possible because of how long symptoms take to develop.

“The risk is something you get in your 20s and the disease is in your 60s or 70s, so how to join these two is difficult,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.

“On the balance of probabilities, a different level of proof, there is more than enough evidence now to say that heading and head injuries are the problem.

“So we try to get rid of that as much as possible – get rid of it in training, it’s not going to affect the game on the weekend.”

Dr Vincent Gouttebarge, the chief medical officer at world players’ union Fifpro, said “we need to have more robust evidence” before football can introduce training restrictions at the professional level.

Former England captain Wayne Rooney said “clearly something needs to change” to prevent the “next generation of players” dying of dementia.

Children aged 11 cannot be taught to head footballs during training in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Similar rules have been in force in the United States since 2015.

Rooney said he saw how children adapted to not being allowed to head the ball when he was playing in the US for DC United and went to watch his son Kai, 11, play.

“If the ball was coming to their head they moved away and let it run through so maybe that’s something that could happen on a more regular basis over here,” added Rooney, Derby County’s interim manager.

Chelsea manager Frank Lampard also said football has to “act now to make sure we are not just sitting on the problem”.

“I am fully backing any movement that looks further into it for players in the past, present and future,” he added.

Jeff Astle
Former West Brom and England striker Jeff Astle developed dementia and died in 2002 at the age of 59

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