Bristol

Is heading a football dangerous?

A composite image of footballers heading the ball Image copyright AFP/Reuters/Getty
Image caption Is repeatedly heading a football a "potentially dangerous thing to do"?

Ex-professional footballer Geoff Twentyman headed footballs countless times during his career, but now it concerns him. Sport, passion, concussion, brain disease, family, friends - all merging together in bittersweet memories of his sporting past. Here he explores his worries in his own words.

During my football career I must have headed the ball tens of thousands of times. As a lad I can remember practising heading over and over again, to perfect the art. But according to some doctors and experts, this was a potentially dangerous thing to do.

Our family was football mad. I played professionally for more than a decade. And my father was also a pro, playing for Liverpool in the 1950s.

During his final years he suffered from Alzheimer's disease, which was a terrible thing for us to witness.

I have often wondered if this cruel indiscriminate condition was in any way linked to his playing career - possibly due to the repeated trauma caused by heading the heavy, old footballs.

Image copyright Alan Marshall
Image caption Geoff Twentyman (left) made 320 appearances for Bristol Rovers between 1986 and 1993. Here he can be seen shaking hands with former Arsenal player Charlie Nicholas

Also, in 2013 a former team-mate of mine at Bristol Rovers, Kevin Moore, died from Pick's Disease - a type of dementia.

Kevin was the most powerful header of a ball I've ever seen. He died on his 55th birthday - no age at all for a man who devoted his life to sport and fitness.

"Is there a link? Yes, I would think there probably is," his widow Mandy told me.

"Because of Kev's position in the team his main function was to head a ball. He'd been doing that from a child until his late 30s I would think.

"He would practice jumping from a corner cross over and over again."

On the other side of Bristol's football divide is another tragic story.

Chris Garland played a significant role in the history of Bristol City. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 1998 and over recent times has also developed Alzheimer's.

He talks in his autobiography about his doctors linking his condition to his career as a footballer.

Image caption Neurologist Dr Michael Grey thinks the whole subject needs addressing

Last year, the decision was taken in the US to ban heading for children aged under 10 after a class action was brought against the football authorities by a group of parents.

"If it was my children I would not have them heading the ball at low ages," says neuroscientist Dr Michael Grey, from the University of Birmingham.

He says it's a subject that needs addressing.

"I think from the point of safety for children it does make sense until we have definitive answers that we should take precautions such as that."

He describes how the brain "wobbles" inside the skull and how the issue is critical for children who are still developing nervous systems and neuroprotection.

'De-risk the game'

Here in the UK the Football Association is prioritising ex-pros over children where neurological illness is concerned.

Dave Reddin, the FA's head of performance services, said: "If we want to de-risk the game we could de-risk it in all sorts of ways.

"So what we're doing on research is first of all taking the bigger question around the incidence of long-term brain injury in ex-professional footballers compared to the normal population," he said.

"Beyond that I think there are some other questions that probably do deserve attention and one of those may be children and whether there needs to be any further research or rule adaptation as a result."

But Dr Grey believes the FA could be doing more.

My mind turns to watching my lad play when he was younger and whether I'd view that differently today.

What is clear is we need more research across the board and one thing is certain, there's no shortage of money in football to fund it.

Geoff Twentyman's film for Inside Out West is on BBC One in the West region at 19:30 GMT. It is then available on the BBC iPlayer for 28 days.

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