Family members of three of England’s 1966 World Cup heroes have called on football to stop heading among young children and a major public education campaign about the national game’s “irrefutable” dementia link.
Tommy Charlton, the younger brother of Jack and Sir Bobby, and John Stiles, the son of Nobby, appeared together on Sunday at Spennymoor Football Club for a trial match without heading that was organised by the charity Head for Change.
Both men described the “heartbreaking” impact of dementia on their families and urged football’s governing authorities to go much further in drastically limiting heading across professional and amateur football.
“The link between heading and dementia is irrefutable – I’m quite willing to tell mums and dad to tell their kids not to head the ball,” said Charlton.
Of repetitive heading in training, he added: “Take it out. I think it will still have to happen in a match – a player will move into position to head it up the field - but surely that is enough.”
Both Charlton and Stiles had listened to a pre-match presentation by Professor Willie Stewart, the Glasgow neuropathologist who proved football’s dementia link.
Stiles, who believes that leading England players remain largely ignorant to the proven risks, and Prof Stewart have offered to go into clubs to provide education.
Stiles wants no heading up to the age of 12 and then only if parents and, from the age of 18, adults have agreed after being educated about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a type of dementia associated with repeated head impacts. “There should be informed consent – I want awareness and proper financial help for players with long term health costs,” he said.
The FA has introduced training guidance that limits professional players to 10 'high-force' headers a week and amateur players to 10 headers. Matches without heading are being trialled for Under-12s and there is no heading in training for Under-12s, but the various guidance is advisory rather than mandatory.
“What’s going on is a nonsense,” said Stiles. “A rule is only a rule if you can enforce it. There’s a killer disease. It’s killed thousands and will kill thousands more.”
Special match shows football without heading can work
By Jeremy Wilson
For almost five minutes, the names kept coming. There was Sir Alf Ramsey, Sir Bobby Charlton, Nobby Stiles, Jack Charlton and Ray Wilson from England’s greatest team. There was Denis Law, Dave McKay, Nat Lofthouse, Tommy Smith, Jimmy Hill and Danny Blanchflower among countless other legends from the English club game.
But, equally poignant, were the dozens and dozens of less household names – men like Jimmy Robson, Bill Gates, Rod Taylor and Billy Tucker – who made up more than 100 former professional players diagnosed with dementia.
Every leading club in the country was represented on this tragic list and, in the form of a pre-match display of silhouettes, brought together at Spennymoor Town Football Club for a unique match.
A trial of both football without heading, and football with only low-force heading from open play, to see if solutions can be found and lives saved. Organised by the charity Head for Change, it was also an attempt to raise awareness and cajole this particular debate beyond the polarised positions of doing nothing and outlawing heading completely.
Anyone doubting that this is an urgently needed debate should simply listen to the pre-match talk provided by Prof Willie Stewart, the Glasgow neuropathologist who proved football’s dementia link. He described his work examining the brains of deceased former footballers, who are five times more likely to die of Alzheimer’s disease and are often also suffering with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a type of dementia only associated with head impacts.
“Those odds are hard to gamble against,” said Prof Stewart, arguing that 30 years would now be an inexcusably long time to simply wait and hope the current generation are not affected in the same awful way.
Listening carefully was Tommy Charlton, brother of Jack and Bobby, who has become deeply frustrated at the lack of awareness. “He [Prof Stewart] should be put into the face of the public as an authority on this subject,” said Charlton.
The Sunderland manager Tony Mowbray kicked the game off and what followed was an eye-opening experiment. People who play regularly in six-a-side leagues will already know that it is perfectly possible to play football without heading. The tackles still flew in. Saves were made. Sweat was shed. Goals were scored and dramatic moments prompted oohs and aahs from the crowd.
There were lighter moments when the Head for Change team scored their one and only goal following a free-kick that was awarded after the ball was blocked by the head of one of their opponents.
As a spectacle, there was a certain familiar edge and variety missing, as players noticeably computed what they could and could not do before playing the ball along the ground.
It often meant slowing down the play and a sideways pass when they might instinctively have launched an aerial pass forward. It was interesting, though, to also see how they adapted as the match wore on. The game was packed full of former professionals who soon realised that a lofted cross remained potentially just as dangerous due to the added difficulty of clearing or controlling a high bouncing ball with only your feet.
Mark Tinkler, now an academy coach at Middlesbrough following 17 years as a professional, noted how his own awareness of getting his body into different positions to receive the ball evolved as the match wore on. He reported that it was neither better or worse, “just different”.
Mowbray was a particularly interested observer. Aged 58, and after more than 600 matches as a central defender, he is realistic about his own risks but also adamant that he would not want to change his career choices.
“I sit here with the vulnerability of ‘that could be me in 10 years' time’,” he said. “I’m 58 and I built a career on heading balls. I’m here not to damage the game but to raise awareness.”
Mowbray also stressed that football training has changed radically in the past 50 years from when he grew up practicing heading repeatedly in his garden to a point where heading drills form no part of his coaching. He also rightly pointed out that an evolution in the rules can only fully take place globally with Fifa’s lead.
To that end, it was disappointing if unsurprising to hear that none of the game’s main governing bodies have sought feedback or introduced their own trials to examine how football might evolve. Head for Change has estimated that the future cost of sports-related dementia already stands at £1 billion “We already have a 30-year problem even if no other player is affected,” said co-founder Judith Gates.
Rugby of course faces its own dementia crisis and among the guest footballers on Sunday were former internationals Alix Popham and Dan Scarborough, who have both been diagnosed with early onset dementia.
Popham stressed that it was “all about dosage”, particularly in training, and that it was time simply for all contact sports to “draw a line in the sand” and acknowledge what is staring them in the face. “We don’t want to kill either sport – we love these sports – we just want to see changes that can reduce the risks,” he said.