Mauricio Pochettino has said that “the health of a player always comes before the game” as he defended Tottenham Hotspur’s medical staff after Jan Vertonghen was allowed to briefly play on following a serious head injury in the club’s 1-0 Champions League defeat by Ajax.
Vertonghen had to be helped off the field shortly after attempting to play on following an ugly clash of heads with team-mate Toby Alderweireld, raising further questions about football’s handling of head injuries and potential concussions.
The defender challenged for a header in the Ajax area but hit his face into the back of Alderweireld’s head, leaving him with a blood-soaked shirt and shorts. According to the club he passed all routine on-pitch testing before being allowed to change his bloodied kit and return.
Referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz was seen repeatedly pointing at his head as he spoke to Vertonghen and consulted with Tottenham’s medical team, before finally allowing him back onto the field of play.
However, Vertonghen lasted only 40 seconds before going across to the sideline, leaning over and struggling to stand. Pochettino had to grab Vertonghen to stop him from keeling over before the Belgian was helped down the tunnel by two medical officials.
“I was not involved [in the decision to allow Vertonghen to continue],” Pochettino said in his post-match press conference. “For me, first of all, we must protect the player’s [health] and of course I wasn’t out of the conversation, but our medical staff follow the protocol and they decided that it was possible to restart the game and possible for him to play again.
“In this moment you are focused on the game and it is difficult to think too much. In this moment you must let the doctor or the medical staff do his job. Of course, I was worried which is normal, because for me the most important is the health of the player before the game.
“In that moment the doctor decided it is okay. I am never going to be involved, I wasn’t in the past and I won’t be in the future. In that type of situation the medical staff and doctor are the boss of this decision, I only need to listen and hear what they say and take the decision. Never am I going to debate or question the decision of the medical staff.”
After being substituted, Tottenham claim Vertonghen passed all immediate concussion tests, with a further medical inspection planned on Wednesday.
Vertonghen left Tottenham’s new stadium by walking unassisted through the mixed zone along with the rest of his team-mates, and told a Belgian journalist that he felt “fine”.
“He was walking away from the stadium,” Pochettino added. “I hope that he is well. It was a big knock but I hope that it was not a big issue.”
Tottenham’s handling of the incident, particularly the decision to allow Vertonghen to return to the field of play, looks set to reignite the conversation around how football handles potential concussions.
The club’s medical staff came under immediate criticism from the former American football player Taylor Twellman, who suffered a serious head injury in 2008 and ultimately saw his playing career ended by the threat of further damage.
Following the Vertonghen incident, Twellman tweeted: “Vertonghen under NO CIRCUMSTANCES should have been allowed to come back onto the field.....DISGUSTING PATHETIC demonstration from Tottenham medical staff!”
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