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PFA calls for urgent intervention to reduce heading in training

Arsenal's William Gallas (right) wins the header against team-mate Gilberto Silva during a training session at London Colney, Hertfordshire in 2006 - Nick Potts/PA

Arsenal’s William Gallas (right) wins the header against team-mate Gilberto Silva during a training session at London Colney, Hertfordshire in 2006 – Nick Potts/PA

The Professional Footballers’ Association has joined calls for heading in training to be urgently reduced to protect players from the future risk of dementia.

The move, which follows The Telegraph’s five year campaign – Tackle Football’s Dementia Scandal – will pile the pressure on the Football Association, as well as other governing bodies including Fifa, Uefa, the Premier League and the English Football League, to also act. 

The FA introduced new heading guidelines for youth football earlier this year, including a ban on primary school children, but have not so far recommended any changes to adult football.

This is despite research, which was published last year by the University of Glasgow, showing that former professional players were 350% more likely to die of neurological disease than the wider population.

The Telegraph has campaigned for research and has since called for reductions in adult training as part of a series of key changes that must now follow. 

In an interview on Wednesday, Sir Geoff Hurst also urged football’s authorities to reduce heading in training after five of his team-mates from the 1966 World Cup-winning team had been diagnosed with dementia.

How dementia affected boys of 66

How dementia affected boys of 66

The FA has so far indicated that it wanst further research before limiting heading in adult training but the PFA made its recommendation following a meeting on Friday of the management committee.

“Science has been developing quickly in this area, and we need to make an urgent intervention based on the evidence that is available now,” said PFA chairman Ben Purkiss. “A reduction of heading in training is a practical and straightforward step. We will be engaging with members, former members and their families to work on this area within the scope of the PFA’s new advisory group, where decisions will be made on the basis of expert advice.”

The PFA also said that a game-wide strategy was urgently needed for dealing with dementia and neurodegenerative diseases in football.

“The PFA and PFA Charity will continue our commitment, alongside The FA, to fund research in this area,” said chief executive Gorodn Taylor. “However, in the short-term, football cannot carry on as it is. There is a big issue here, and based on the increasing evidence available, it is clear we need to take immediate steps to monitor and reduce heading within training.”

The Telegraph's campaign to tackle football's dementia scandal

The Telegraph’s campaign to tackle football’s dementia scandal

Mark Bullingham, the FA chief executive, earlier said that the FA had “led the way” with research but that it was not yet clear what was causing such a high prevalence of brain disease among former professionals.

The Telegraph revealed research this week by the Liverpool Hope University which found that a majority of players failed a pitchside concussion test after just 20 headers.

A 2016 study by the University of Stirling also showed that there was an immediate disruption in normal brain function and a significant reduction in memory function following as few as 20 regular headers from a corner kick. A separate study from Purdue University in 2015 found that goal-kicks caused similar G-force as a tackle in American football. It is well established that head trauma is linked to dementia.

The PFA has not suggested a set limit on heading but Dr Willie Stewart, the neuropathologist who led the Glasgow study, has suggested no more than 20 headers per session and then a 48-hour break.

Concussion in football | What could change?

Concussion in football | What could change?

The PFA is also establishing an advisory group and has backed a submission for dementia in football to be recognised as an industrial disease. Asked on Friday about training restrictions, Bullingham stressed a need to find the precise cause of football’s dementia link. “They [the footballers] did have a higher prevalence of dementia,” he said. “So the next question is absolutely what causes that, and it’s not entirely clear cut. We know that there’s been some studies that have shown for example that long distance runners in some areas have a greater incidence of Alzheimer’s. In terms of where we go from here I think the key is our call for research to establish what is that link.”

The FA and PFA part-funded the landmark Glasgow research which found that former players were 350% more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease, including a five-fold increased risk of Alzheimer’s, a four-times greater likelihood of dying from motor neurone disease and a doubled risk of Parkinson’s.

FIFPro, the world players’ union, said earlier this week that there was not enough evidence for heading in football training to be reduced. A major question, then, would be whether clubs in England and Wales would follow guidelines that were not enforced elsewhere in the world and to what extent players will force through this change.

Trials for concussion substitutes are due to be introduced next year but campaigners want temporary changes – to give medics extra time to assess injuries – rather than the proposed additional permanent substitute.

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