Alan Shearer has warned that many footballers are oblivious to the dementia risks associated with the national game.
Shearer was speaking in support of a brain injury charity, before their ‘billion pound’ match on Sunday.
Head for Change have calculated that the cost of sports-related dementia care will rise beyond £1 billion over the next 30 years and are organising a friendly game that will trial both a ‘no heading’ version of football but also a version involving only ‘low force’ headers, which rules out heading from set-pieces.
Research by the University of Glasgow has found that former footballers are five times more likely to die of Alzheimer’s Disease than the wider population and, while he is not calling for an outright heading ban, Shearer wants risks further minimised.
The Football Association have so far restricted professional players to 10 ‘high force’ headers per week in training, but also told amateurs not to head the ball more than 10 times per week in training and are trialling a complete heading ban for the youngest children.
“It’s the game that we all love - the game I have been involved with all my life,” said Shearer. “I know it comes with risks, in terms of breaking your legs, or breaking your ankles. It’s a sport that can be tough. You go into the game knowing that you could have a serious injury.
“You don't ever go into the game thinking you could get dementia. We need it to be as safe as possible in terms of brain injuries.”
Shearer, whose former coaches Chris Nicholl and Terry McDermott are among the hundreds of former professionals diagnosed with dementia, presented a BBC investigation about the issue and has pledged to donate his brain to the Glasgow Brain Injury Research Group when he dies.
The Glasgow experts have discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) - a type of dementia associated with head impacts - in a disproportionately high number of former sportspeople, including former England players Nobby Stiles and Jeff Astle.
Shearer is also calling for football authorities to introduce temporary rather than permanent concussion substitutes so that doctors have more time to make a definite asssessment of players following a head injury in the same way as the minimum 10-minute head injury assessment in rugby.
“Hopefully it is only a matter of time before that comes in,” he said.
Judith Gates, the co-founder of Head for Change, has also made the decision with her husband Bill Gates to donate his brain. Gates, a former Middlebrough player, retired aged 30 after suffering persistent migraines and is now living with dementia. CTE can only be diagnosed in a post-mortem and has also been found in numerous former American football players.
Sunday’s charity match follows a successful ‘no heading’ trial match last September and will again be held at National League North club Spennymoor Town FC. Tony Mowbray will kick off the match and Dr Willie Stewart, the Glasgow neuropathologist who proved football’s dementia link, will play in goal. Former players will include Robbie Stockdale, Curtis Fleming, Colin Cooper, Tommy Butler, Darren Holloway and Tony McMahon, as well as ex-rugby players Alix Popham, Dan Scarborough and Stevie Ward.
Popham and Scarborough have both had early onset dementia diagnosed and Ward was forced to retire due to sports-related concussion.
The charity Head of Change has been contacted by more than 100 professional sportspeople with dementia. They are offering education to clubs and will highlight the scale of the problem with a pre-match silhouette parade of 66 players. Half of England’s 1966-match winning team went on to suffer dementia and campaigners are finding an “epidemic” among former players.
Sunday’s charity match at Spennymoor match will kick off at 3pm, with tickets costing £5 for adults and £2 for under 18s and are available at the gate or from the club’s website.