Scientist warns heading footballs 'not safe for children'

Former England player Astle's death has been linked by pathologists to heading footballs throughout his career

Heading footballs may not be safe for children because their bodies cannot yet cope with the repetitive strain, one of Britain’s leading neuroscientists has said.

It comes as the family of a former England footballer was set to meet with representatives from the FA to discuss what is being done to research and raise awareness of the issue in the game.

Jeff Astle played more than 350 games up front for West Bromwich Albion in the 1960s and ‘70s, and earlier this year a pathologist found that he died in 2002 from an “industrial disease” – brain damage clearly linked to heading a heavy ball throughout his career.

Astle’s family are now calling for a parliamentary inquiry, and US studies have suggested that heading a football 1,000 times can lead to “untreatable problems”.

Dr Michael Grey, reader in Motor Neuroscience at the University of Birmingham's School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences, told Sky News that he and “many of [his] colleagues” believed it was not safe for children to head the ball.

“The reason for that is two-fold. First, the neck muscles aren't yet developed for the size of the children's head at that age.

“The other reason is that their brains are still developing so they're still in a very vulnerable period for taking a blow to the head, and I should say these concussive events, we don't yet know if repetitive injury such as this is safe for professionals either.”

The King: One of many local memorials to the striker who suffered from dementia as a result of plying his trade The King: One of many local memorials to the striker who suffered from dementia as a result of plying his trade This week the FA released a set of new guidelines and rules covering concussion and head injuries in football, and produced an educational film starring current and former England players including Steven Gerrard.

The issue made headlines last season when the Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was allowed to play on despite losing consciousness after being kneed in the head.

But the FA said it had no new information on the link between heading and brain damage because a the young players involved in a 10-year study, commissioned after Astle’s death, didn’t make it to a professional standard and stopped playing.

Speaking ahead of their meeting today with the FA chairman Greg Dyke and the neurosurgeon Dr Willie Stewart, Jeff’s daughter Dawn Astle told Sky: “We know what killed dad, the coroner's court said it was industrial disease: heading footballs killed dad and the Football Association just don't acknowledge it.

“We have real worries, not just for current footballers, and of course not just professionals - we're talking about amateurs as well - but about football's future, about the children in the game.

“They need to know the risks, then they can make informed choices.”

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