First football match without heading welcomed by leading brain injury scientist

BBC Sport

September 16, 2021

The first adult football match without heading set for later this month has been welcomed by a leading scientist for brain injuries.

Organisers hope the match at Spennymoor Town involving former professionals will show how 11-a-side football works with heading restrictions and continue an “ongoing conversation about the safety of players.”

Professor Willie Stewart from Glasgow University has published research showing that footballers are up to five times more likely to suffer from dementia than the general population.

He believes that neurodegenerative brain disease is linked to heading after further studies showed that defenders were more at risk than goalkeepers, who do not head the ball.

The match, organised by charity Head for Change, will only allow headers in the penalty box for the first half and then restrict all heading during the second half.

Co-founder Dr Judith Gates said they wanted the match on Sunday 26 September “to raise awareness of the dangers of heading and it was the logical next step”.

She also said it would be a “legacy” for her husband, former Middlesbrough defender Bill Gates, who has a neurodegenerative condition.

Stewart said he was “astonished” it had taken until 2021 for a match like this to be organised and challenged football associations to take the idea forward.

“This is a long overdue and welcome development,” he told BBC Radio 5 live.

“What we all want to see is need a more meaningful and perhaps longer term assessment of what restricting and removing heading in the game might be.

“So this is a challenge to football organisations to say ‘What can you do to take this forward?’. That’s what we need to see happening now.

“We’re asking the question ‘Is heading absolutely necessary or is the risk of dementia something we have to accept if a game of football is to go ahead?’.”

Stewart’s latest research in August, which was funded by the Football Association and players’ union the Professional Footballers’ Association, also found that risk of brain injury disease increased the longer a player’s football career was.

After its publication, Stewart said that “footballs should be sold with a health warning saying repeated heading in football may lead to increased risks of dementia”.

Gates told BBC Radio 5 live: “The passion for doing this comes from living alongside Bill.

“We cannot change the trajectory for his illness, but we made a family commitment to him to protect future players and families from experiencing the same as us, and that will be his legacy.

“We are not recommending that heading be banned, that’s [a decision] for the governing bodies to make.

“But the more information, the more evidence we get and the more we look at alternatives, the more likely we are to protect players and protect the game.”

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