Scores of retired footballers have come forward to pledge the donation of their brains to dementia research, amid signs that the campaign for a clinical investigation into the neurological effects of heading are moving towards a breakthrough at last.
A total of 20 former professional and amateur players have contacted the Jeff Astle Trust, which is leading the campaign, in the last two days alone, and many in touch with the group are willing to be organ donors. The Trust's contact with families provide the Football Association with a potentially crucial resource, as the examination of deceased players brains is the most effective and conclusive way of establishing - or discounting - a link between football and dementia.
But The Independent understands that a Football Association-commissioned research project is also expected to be under way by the end of the year. Expert consultants approached by the FA have been at odds over what information the research project needs to secure and how the commissioning brief should be formulated. But after months of work seeking consensus, the governing body is thought to be reaching agreement on the research parameters.
The FA-commissioned work could be a two or three-year project, with authors of a paper which revealed evidence of damage consistent with heading or other collisions in the brains of six deceased players insisting that a more detailed investigation is now needed.
Dawn Astle, the daughter of Jeff Astle, said on Thursday night that her group had not been approached by the FA about acting as a link to prospective donors but that they were willing to help in any way possible. Many of the families who have approached the Trust say that ex-players with dementia developed the condition in their 60s, at an age younger than is typical in the general population.
The need for urgent investigation was underlined on Thursday when the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, Gordon Taylor, told the BBC that children under the age of ten should nor head the ball until a better scientific understanding of the impact was established.
Taylor told the Today programme: “The game needs to look at regular testing as it has done with heart screening. In the meantime, it’s no bad thing for youngster under the age of ten not to head the ball… bearing in mind they are not fully developed.”
Ms Astle sees the FA-commissioned project as the essential piece of work, though she said the Trust reserved judgement on work beginning this year, as her family had been promised an investigation before in the 15 years since a post mortem found that her father’s dementia had also been caused by heading a football.
“Let’s hope something can get under way this time,” said Ms Astle. “We have had so many empty promises and have always felt the football authorities do not want to investigate because of what they might find. We know football has got the money to investigate but does it have the will?”
In the short term, Uefa has said it will begin undertaking a research project on Friday, in which it will count the number of times children head the ball in games and training sessions. That exercise will provide scientists undertaking clinical research with a valuable sense of how often repeated ‘impacts’ are taking place.
More than 1,000 children will be filmed across two age ranges, eight-12 and 14-16, and the headers will be logged and categorised. The project will also track the number of headers by players in different positions on the field.
The breakthroughs come after the publication of the most detailed British research ever undertaken into dementia among retired footballers concluded that the condition may be connected to repeated head ‘impacts’, caused by collisions and thousands of headers.
The Swansea University/UCL study included post mortem examinations on six players who suffered dementia, which revealed that all of them had suffered from a tearing to a brain membrane consistent with chronic, repetitive head impacts from playing football. The incidence of that tearing in the general population is just six per cent, based on previous studies.
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