February 13, 2020
Express & Star
The failure by football’s authorities, over many years, to take seriously a possible link between playing the sport and neurodegenerative diseases was nothing short of scandalous.
Jeff Astle died as a result of years of heading footballs
Yet finally, at long last, they are listening. And beginning to act too.
The announcement of plans to limit heading in junior football represented a major step forward for those who have campaigned over many years to make the game safer.
New guidelines issued by the FA will instruct coaches that children from under-sevens to under-12s should no longer practice heading in training, while there would then be a phased introduction right up to the age of 18.
Major changes are also proposed for the professional game. Though the details are still being thrashed out, the likelihood remains concussion substitutes will be introduced in the Premier League and EFL for next season.
All of which follows research by the University of Glasgow, published last year, which found former footballers were three-and-a-half times more likely to die from neurodegenerative disease than other members of the population.
The risks for ex-footballers ranged from a five-fold increase in Alzheimer’s disease to a four-fold increase in motor neurone disease. Former players were also twice as likely to suffer from Parkinson’s disease.
Though the study could not establish a precise cause, the link between head trauma and brain injury is well established and faced with such numbers doing nothing was not an option. For once, the FA have been proactive, drawing up proposals for the junior and adult game less than four months after the research was published.
Yet the real credit lies not with them but the families who have been affected by dementia in football, most notably that of Albion legend Jeff Astle, who never gave up their campaign despite many years of frustration at the inaction and denial of the authorities.
It was back in 2002 a coroner ruled Astle’s death was the result of an industrial disease brought about by repeatedly heading footballs.
In 2014, it was found he has been suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive brain condition more usually associated with boxers.
Only in early 2018 was the funding for the University of Glasgow’s groundbreaking research finally approved. Therein lies the scandal.
Last week’s announcement was warmly welcomed by the Jeff Astle Foundation, who were invited to St George’s Park to go through the plans with FA chairman Greg Clarke and his team.
This was a long overdue victory, yet the short statement issued by the charity also noted this is by no means the end of the story, far from it.
While the achievement of getting the authorities to take notice and act on the issue should never be underplayed, the Foundation also work to provide support for sports people and their families living with the effects of neurodegenerative disease.
To that end, they have now made a submission for dementia in football to be formally recognised as an industrial disease, something which would help families in their push for compensation.
There have long been calls, meanwhile, for the PFA to fund a comprehensive care plan for those affected. It too was horribly slow to act in recognising the danger that existed – and still exists – to its members.
Dawn Astle’s call for a public enquiry into what the FA and PFA knew about the risks, made after the University of Glasgow’s research was released, did not seem unreasonable. The Astle family and others are finally starting to see rewards for their years of tireless work, yet they know the fight remains a long way from over.