REVIEW: Dementia, Football & Me

Alex Thornhill is a final-year journalism student whose critical investigation ‘Should Heading Be Banned in Football’ will be published in May 2018.

We are so used to seeing the notorious raising of the right-arm, palm open, after another bullet header from Alan Shearer hits the back of the net in front of thousands of screaming fans.

But not on this occasion. Shearer showed the same lethal eye in front of goal as he did 15 years ago, but instead of being in front of 50,000 screaming Newcastle fans at St James’ Park, he was heading a football at Stirling University, testing the impact on the brain.

Alan Shearer: Dementia, Football and Me is informative but disturbing, and is essential viewing for anyone who is involved in the beautiful game.

Football without heading may be like cricket without fast bowling, boxing without punching or rugby without tackling.

There are dangers, but it’s part of the game and despite Shearer stating he believes heading shouldn’t be banned from the game, he is unquestionably angered at the lack of studies that have been done on the issue. Studies that should’ve been conducted a long time ago.

Shearer was a professional footballer for 20 years and practiced heading over 100 times in training each day.

Like Shearer, Jeff Astle played as a striker and was never afraid of ‘putting his head in where it hurts.’ Astle died in 2002 at age of 59. The inquest into Astle’s death determined the former West Brom and England player died of Dementia.

Medical experts at the inquest said the cause was through repeated minor traumas probably caused by heading a heavy football.

Shearer visits the daughter of Astle, Dawn who was clearly distressed at the lack of research that has been done by the FA.

An emotional Dawn recalls the first signs she could see something was wrong with her dad was when he couldn’t remember of her son’s name, Matthew.

She recollects the time the footballer asked whether his mum was still alive, when she had died 17 or 18 years earlier.

Dawn, like so many, such as former footballer Matt Tees and John Stiles, son of World Cup winner Nobby, is convinced that heading a football has links to brain damage.

Former Luton, Grimbsy and Charlton footballer Tees was visited by Shearer at his home. The wife of Tees states that he is into the final stages which means he could have two to 10 years to live. Mrs Tees states she can name eight players Tees had played with that have had dementia or Alzheimer’s.

In the University of Stirling they decided to set up a laboratory controlled trial where they mimicked effects of heading a ball in a training drill, as a corner would be headed into the goal.

“It was very clear the first time we used it that there are immediate brain changes after heading a ball,” neuroscientist Dr Magdalena Letswaart said.

Shearer used the training machine and headed a ball more likely to be seen in the 1960s, as well as a modern-day ball which I personally considered would be far lighter.

Surprisingly to me, Shearer noted that the ball used years ago felt much lighter to head.

However, the issue with the ball was when it got wet. The University soaked an old leather ball in water for two hours and compared the weight of the ball before and after. The original ball weighed at 390 grams, but once soaked the weight increased by 205 grams.

In America, Children ten and under are banned from heading a football in practice and in games. Dr Michael Grey has seen enough to believe that repeated non-concussive impact is not good for the brain and wouldn’t want his children to be doing it.

In contrast to this, John Terry will be encouraging his daughter to go and attack the ball, he explains “because – more so in girls football – they don’t really head the ball, and a kind of corner comes in and everyone kind of shies away from it a little bit, and I’m trying to encourage my girl that rather than letting that ball hit you, and kind of probably do some damage, if you go and attack it and meet the ball, the contact’s better”.

Shearer had a MRI scan at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Glasgow. He was clearly nervous to find out if heading a football for years had caused long-lasting damage. The former-striker was palpably relieved to find out everything was normal and perfectly fine for the moment.

Overall, Alan Shearer: Dementia and Me is a real eye-opener. Players, coaches and parents need educating to be aware of the dangers of the game. Research must be done into the issue and documentaries like this will raise awareness and make it a talking point. A talking point that has been brushed under the carpet for too long. I echo Shearer’s closing line in the documentary – “it’s known as our beautiful game, let’s make sure it’s not a killer game.”

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