The former Arsenal striker Alan Smith insists football has to face up to the potential threat of long-term brain damage to players and welcomed the advancement of further investigation.
Sources tell Press Association Sport that a major study into whether footballers are at greater risk of degenerative brain disease is set for launch in the next few weeks with the appointment of a research group to undertake the most comprehensive study of its kind, jointly commissioned by the Football Association and Professional Footballers’ Association.
Former England captain Alan Shearer expressed his concern about the effects heading a ball during his career may have on his long-term health and questioned whether enough had been done by governing bodies to protect players from issues like dementia in later life.
“The authorities have been very reluctant to find out any answers. They have swept it under the carpet, which is not good enough,” he told the Daily Mirror.
And Smith, who admits he did “an awful lot of heading” as the Gunners’ front man in the 1980s and 1990s, shares those concerns.
“I played in an era when the balls were lighter but I’d hate to think that I would suffer because of that in later life,” he said.
“It’s an issue that’s not always been bubbling under in recent times. Jeff Astle’s family have obviously been at the forefront, They want more investigations into the link between heading and brain disease — and I’m all for that. I certainly don’t think we should be brushing this under the carpet.
“I saw the film Concussion a couple of years back, with Will Smith, and the surgeon then had a real battle on his hands with the NFL for them to admit any link with the sport and brain damage. So we’ve got to face up to it, there’s no question.”
Former teammate David O’Leary agrees. “If there’s some doubt or something there, they’ve got to investigate and rule it in or rule it out,” he said.
The FA has rejected claims it was “swept under the carpet” and in March, in response to growing pressure from the likes of the family of ex-West Brom forward Astle who died in 2002 from brain injuries, the governing body set out its plans to tackle the issue with the most comprehensive study done in this area by any organisation.
At the time the FA’s head of medicine Dr Charlotte Cowie said: “This is a crucial issue for the FA and one that we feel passionately about addressing.
“Player welfare is paramount and it is increasingly important that the football authorities investigate further whether there are any potential risks associated with heading the ball, as this is a unique feature of our game.”
There has been criticism of the FA and PFA for their apparent lack of interest in finding out the answer to questions like whether heading a football is linked to dementia.
While understanding the growing frustration the FA pointed to the complexity of the issue and the lack of useful research — the last study in 2002 failed because it did not provide a big enough volume of data — for the lack of definitive answers up to now.
They swiftly made moves to bring in a concussion guidelines when that was proved to be the cause of brain damage but the evidence around links to dementia are much less clear.
It is hoped this new study can produce initial results within three to four years which will provide a clearer understanding.