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Terry McDermott diagnosis really hit home – Then invited to take part in alternative to heading study

3 weeks ago
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It seems barely a week passes by without a retired footballer being diagnosed with some form of dementia, with greats of the game like Denis Law and Terry McDermott recently announcing that they are suffering with the disease, likely brought on by consistently heading a football.

The Terry McDermott diagnosis really hit home with me.

As a fan who grew up watching Newcastle in the mid 1990s he was synonymous with the club’s rise to the brink of winning the Premier League title, a constant quiet presence at the side of his manager, Kevin Keegan.

For older fans of Newcastle, he was a fantastic player for the club over two spells, broken up by an eight year period with Liverpool, which saw him win five league titles and three European Cups.

It is sadly inevitable that this number will continue to rise.

It was an issue highlighted by Alan Shearer’s excellent documentary on the subject in 2017, which I sat down and watched again recently when I knew I was going to be writing this piece. The documentary was enlightening and frightening in equal measure.

Much of it focused on the role of the old leather footballs. Somewhat surprisingly, the old balls are lighter than the new varieties when dry. However, when the old balls were put in water, their weight increased significantly. It was clear in Shearer’s documentary how nervous he was about learning the impact heading a football had on his brain, admitting that he would often head over 100 balls in training every day. Fortunately for Shearer, the testing he underwent suggested that his brain had suffered no long-term consequences, but in other tests it was fascinating to see how the performance of his brain decreased temporarily after heading a ball.

The evidence base for this research is continuing to expand. Following Shearer’s documentary some of the scientists that featured in his programme published a study in 2019 which found that professional footballers were more likely to suffer from neurodegenerative brain disease, while further studies into football and head trauma have shown that professional footballers are three and a half times more likely to die from dementia.

This worrying trend led to new guidance issued by the Football Association this summer, limiting professional footballers to 10 “higher force headers” a week in training under new guidelines for the upcoming season.

Children aged 11 and under are now no longer taught to head footballs during training in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, while FA guidelines for coaches also places limits on how much heading older children should do.

However, there is one major issue with all of this and that is the fact that there is no realistic prospect of heading ever being removed from the sport. It is a key skill in both the defending and attacking elements of the game.

The issue with these restrictions for limiting heading in training is that excellent heading technique, is key to minimising damage to the brain.

But how can you hone your technique without practising?

That is the challenge that coaches and players will face over the next few years at every level of the sport.

I was therefore really pleased to be asked to take part in a study by Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) to understand what some of the alternative options are that could be explored to practise heading while protecting the health of generations of footballers in the future.

I turned up at Platt Lane Sports Centre in Manchester on a wet Wednesday lunchtime and was directed to a large white tent with an indoor football pitch inside where I was greeted by Greg Wood and Ben Mitchell.

After brief introductions I was asked what my current heading skill was like. A keen footballer throughout my life I haven’t actually played 11 a side regularly for well over a decade, choosing to get my football fix through my weekly 5 a side. I therefore expected my skill level to be pretty low.

I was then directed across to stand on the edge of the six yard box. Ben would then feed 15 balls into a machine which would ‘cross’ the ball for me.

All I had to do was try and head the ball into the empty net. Extra points were awarded for accuracy, which was measured by how closely I could direct the ball towards the corners of the goal and therefore making it more difficult for the theoretical goalkeeper to save.

In the circumstances I was quite pleased with my first attempt, finding the back of the next with five of my 15 attempts. However, one thing I noticed immediately upon completing the challenge was that my head felt quite sore.

I was then taken into another building where I was shown how to use the virtual reality equipment, which is how I would be aiming to improve my skills over the course of the next week. I would be allowed to practice for an hour and a half using a game called Rezzil Player 22 and my results would then be compared against a control group who wouldn’t be using the technology between the testing.

The technology was incredible, instantly transporting me from my living room to what genuinely felt like a football pitch. The game has a number of levels which tests your skill and technique and you have to score a certain number of points before you can move on to the next level.

It took me a little while to get used to it, the main issue being that it was so realistic that you actually thought a ball was about to hit your head and it was a strange feeling when it didn’t.

Each level taught you a new element, some of which seemed surprisingly obvious.

I noticed immediate improvements after the game told me I needed to be using my arms to help generate accuracy and pace. However, perhaps the most obvious piece of advice was to really concentrate on where your eyes were looking when you headed the ball. It seems so simple but it made me realise that I just hadn’t really focused on the skill element of the technique and had just been hoping for the best when I had done the initial test.

It was genuinely really good fun to play and I was disappointed when I reached my allotted 90 minutes of practice and was eager to see what the results would be.

When I returned a week later I was genuinely nervous. I had worked hard and wanted that to be reflected in the results, not just for me but for the game as a whole. To prevent footballers from getting dementia, while keeping heading a key part of the game, technology such as this has to work.

I repeated exactly the same exercise I had done first time around and when I received the results the following day, was pleased to see there had been a big improvement. I managed to score eight of my attempts on goal, up from five the previous week, representing an improvement of 20%. In comparison, the control group who did not practice between the tests only improved by 6%. My accuracy was also better. In week one, on average, the ball had been 164 centimetres away from the post, whereas in week two this was down to 102, so I was 62 centimetres more accurate.

Undoubtedly, there will be much more research into this in the future but I found it really encouraging to see such a huge improvement in such a short space of time. I came away from the test firmly believing there is a place for this technology, and other programmes like it, in the training schedule of the modern day player.

Throughout this process I’ve thought long and hard about where I stand on heading the ball and its future in the game. It’s clear that more research is needed to try and establish the link between heading a football and dementia. But what is also clear is that this issue can’t continue to be swept under the carpet and the football authorities simply need to do more.

Footballers have one of the best jobs in the world and the vast majority of them are handsomely rewarded for what they do. But that doesn’t mean the problem should be ignored, because dementia is a cruel disease that afflicts not just the person suffering but all of their family and friends around them.

I sincerely hope that more research will continue to take place so that future generations of footballers don’t lose their proud memories, and families don’t lose their loved ones, to this awful disease.

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