Repeatedly heading a football can lead to brain damage, according to research led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. The study found that repetitive heading may set off a cascade of responses that can lead to degeneration of brain cells. Apparently, people who head a ball 1,000 to 1,500 times per year are most at risk of ‘significant injury’.
The key words here are ‘may’ and ‘can’. Any research which uses such vague terminology is not worthy of being called research. Over the years, countless of millions of people have headed a football – some for a living, some for pleasure. Some people are naturally good in the air. I once played in a team where our centre-half, Manny, was so good that he used to head the ball 1,500 times in a match. He even used to take penalties with his head.
The English professional game has produced a number of great headers of a football. On one occasion, back in the 60s, I overheard some entertaining banter on the terraces at White Hart Lane about the merits of Tony Hateley, who had recently been signed for a large transfer fee by Liverpool. “Oh, he’s really good in the air, though,” said one Scouser, in defence of his new hero, who was being ridiculed by the home fans. “So was Douglas Bader,” came the reply from a Spurs fan, “but they didn’t pay £100,000 for him.”
When I was growing up, we played with a leather football which weighed a ton to start with and got progressively heavier as it picked up moisture during the game. When you headed the thing you were in danger of snapping your neck in half, and would invariably end up with an angry mark on your forehead resulting from contact with the lace which was used to tie the dead weight of pigs’ bladder together. Today’s footballers can’t possibly come to any harm heading the modern ball, which is a balloon by comparison.
This research is American, and should be viewed in light of what the average American academic knows about football. I have known thousands of people who have spent the best part of thirty years heading a football. Not one of them has suffered brain damage as a result. If God had meant us not to head footballs, he would not have given us Alan Gilzean.