Is football in denial about brain damage?

Ahead of Alan Shearer's BBC documentary on the illness, we explore how headers can have a knock-on effect on the brain

Getty, SL

Doctors who specialise tend to have a special reverence for the part of the body they’ve chosen, valuing it far above lesser organs. Certainly, that was the case with Peter Harvey, whom I met years ago in Harley Street in London to talk about brain damage and sport. When he spoke of the brain, you might have thought he was talking about the soul. As perhaps he was.

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Sport has traditionally taken a more robust attitude to head injuries. One of football’s favourite stories concerns the then Partick Thistle manager, John Lambie, who heard that his centre-forward Colin McGlashan was suffering from concussion and didn’t know who he was. “Tell him he’s Pelé and get him back on.”

Good line; bad practice. Football now stops at once for a head injury, and there’s a protocol in place to make sure a concussed player doesn’t get back onto the pitch, no matter who he thinks he is. Or she. So that’s an advance.

All sports are now less cavalier. Head injuries have become a major concern in rugby, in horse racing, in American football, even to an extent in boxing. But football is unique in that it’s the only sport in which the head is routinely used as a ball-striking implement. There is clear evidence that repeated heading of the ball creates subtle and cumulative damage to the brain. And no one’s doing much about it.

So bring in Alan Shearer. He could head a ball harder than most people – or mules – could kick it. And he has been asking the serious questions that football really should have been asking for itself. His BBC1 documentary brings out qualities of Shearer we don’t see in his punditry: intelligence, compassion, warmth, humour, anger. It’s an issue he’s uncomfortably close to, and he betrays his nerves during an MRI scan to assess the state of his own brain.

Jeff Astle was a terrific footballer, and as powerful a header of the ball as the game has ever known. He died aged 59 in 2002 and the inquest concluded that his long illness and subsequent death were caused by the “repeated minor trauma” of heading the ball.

Nobby Stiles, one of the heroes of England’s 1966 World Cup victory, suffers from dementia. His son John says he’s certain this is the result of heading the ball again and again, in matches and, damagingly, in daily routines of practice.

“Football doesn’t seem to want to know,” says Astle’s daughter Dawn, who speaks with both reason and passion. And that’s what gets to Shearer, who pays a visit to the Professional Footballers’ Association and the FA without getting any sense of urgency or commitment.

“No one has said: ‘We messed up here,’” he says, shocked that the sport didn’t leap into action 15 years ago, after Astle’s death. He found many qualified people eager to take on the research; all they need is funding. And football isn’t short of cash.

Shearer remains optimistic. The game is no longer played with a water-absorbing ball that gets hazardously heavy on a rainy day. But he is convinced repeated heading is seriously dangerous, and should not be part of daily practice. The soaring header was Shearer’s glory. All the more reason for his sport to listen.

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Alan Shearer: Dementia, Football and Me Sunday 10.30pm BBC1