Why dementia study could be first step of something hugely significant in football history

Impressively proactive steps are being taken, in a way that other sports have been reluctant to do in the past

What is dementia?

The FIELD study, led by the University of Glasgow and funded by the FA and PFA, is the most comprehensive research ever commissioned into the long-term health of former professional footballers. And there has already been one strong response.

Five current members of the Professional Football Association staff are willing to donate their brains for long-term research into the issue.

That show just how important the FIELD Study is, in terms of how we will think about the game, but also how much research there is still do on what is now a very live problem.

Despite all the inevitable headlines about how the 7,676 players studied are 3.5 times more likely to die of dementia from the matched population, it was cautioned that “there is no evidence to change the way the game is played at the moment”, and that one main conclusion is that “football is good for you”.

Former players on average lived three and a quarter years longer, and were less likely to die of many “major killers” like heart disease or lung cancer.

The line is very much that people should keep playing.

The wonder, however, is whether the nature of how they play will start to change.

That is why this study could well be the first step in something hugely significant in football history. The authorities are certainly taking it seriously, with the International Football Association Board technical group meeting this week, and both Uefa and Fifa set to take it on.

The figures speaking at Monday’s press conference – FA Head of Medicine Dr Charlotte Cowie, FA Chief Executive Mark Bullingham, PFA Deputy Chief Executive Bobby Barnes, and Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Dr Carol Routledge – say that all parties are committed to getting to the root of this, and they don’t foresee any funding problems.

They will need that funding, as there is a lot to get into. And while the FA statement took due caution to outline “it does not determine what exactly causes the increased rates of dementia”, one of the areas prioritised for research is – obviously – heading.

A ‘Heading Impact Consensus Statement’ has also been set in motion.

One challenge, as was mentioned at the briefing, is that is very difficult and time-consuming to properly look into.

“The gold-standard study would be to take a massive group of players from the age of about 16 onwards,” Dr Cowie said. “It’s not just heading, but questioning general health and other habits and take them all the way through to the time when they might develop dementia and match them against the control population of people who don’t play football.

“And that’s always been the dilemma, that in order to put together a really high-quality study, to be careful about how you put it together so you get robust data.”

Along those lines, there is already an acceptance that future research needs to consider issues like the different footballs used from the players studied – all born between 1900 and 1976 – to now. Other areas that will be looked into are elements like different positions and the problem of sub-concussive hits.

As Barnes conceded, English football from his era – and the eras of those players covered in the study – is a “very different game to that which players are playing today”.

You see far fewer aerial challenges, of the type that involve the kind of physical collisions that have been proven to cause cognitive problems in admittedly higher-contact sports like rugby and American football.

The Jeff Astle gates at The Hawthorns

This may well be a more pressing issue than heading, given the research has shown that there was “no difference between goalkeepers and outfield players when it came to the likelihood of dementia”.

And those differences have accelerated in the last few years. It is already becoming a much more technique-based sport, where speed of execution trumps physical prowess.

That is proven by the following Opta stats. First of all, since high crosses started being recorded in 2006, the number per Premier League game has fallen from 38.2 in 2008-09 to 24.2 last season. Consequently, the proportion of headed goals has already drastically fallen. The Premier League high was 23.1% in 1995-96. That fell to 17.3% last season, with the Premier League low at 15.2% in 2013-14.

The game, to paraphrase Brian Clough, really is being played – as was intended – on the grass much more. And it is also much more definitively “foot”-ball. Consider this in basic terms. One of the most common goals in English football used to be the whipped cross into the box for the number-nine to head in. It is now the cut-back for an on-coming wide forward to slot in.

This is not to say we have to yet get used to a game without heading.

But this is what it is so significant – and creditable – about this study. It is getting in front of what is now a proven problem. It is something that needs to be looked into.

Impressively proactive steps are being taken, in a way that other sports have been hugely reluctant to do in the past.

That also means the words of Dawn Astle – the daughter of Jeff Astle, who died in 2002 from what a coroner ruled was ‘industrial disease’ from playing football – make an even bigger impression.

She declared herself “staggered” at the issue, and implored the government to step in.

“My overall feeling is that I am staggered even though my own research and instinct was always that there was a serious problem,” said Astle, who will now join an FA-led Research Taskforce. “There will be no celebrations. It doesn’t bring my dad back, it won’t bring any other dads and husbands back. We knew dad could not be the only one. We just wanted that question answered. We just wanted to see that football cared enough to find out the scale of the problem, to do the right thing and be there for these people when they need them most.”

The game, at last, looks like it is doing that. That is to be applauded. This represents a significant commitment.

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