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All Things Football

All Things Football

All Things Football Here’s my football blog dedicated to all true lovers of “The Beautiful Game”… And people just looking for something great to read! 😉 Follow me on Instagram at “joelmians” and on Twitter (@joelmians) Wednesday, 11 July 2018 The Chronicles of an England fan: Semi-final day Wow, England are in the semi-finals of the World Cup! Truthfully, I never thought I’d see this moment for a very long time, especially after the debacle that was Euro 2016 and that abysmal defeat two years ago to Iceland in the round of 16. And to be frank, it was about time we got this far because I was just about sick to death of watching re-runs of England’s last two semi-finals against Germany in Italia ’90 and Euro ’96, trying to stir up emotions of pain and hurt at penalty shootout defeats that both happened before I was even born! Yeah, that’s how long it’s been! How so much can change in two years: England, two years after a humiliating defeat to Iceland at the round-of-16 stage at Euro 2016 ( top ) now find themselves in the semi-finals in the World Cup for the first time in 28 years after Saturday’s win vs. Sweden. ( bottom ) Taking it back a few weeks, I just remember going back to my old school to speak to my old PE teacher, now the Head of Sixth Form and I told him how lucky he was to have witnessed two England semi-finals in his lifetime with Italia 90 and Euro 96, (I don’t think I made him feel any younger saying that!), also saying that for England to reach the semi-finals this time, for me would be unbelievable. And now that it’s come – I’m actually starting to get that much greedier! A semi-final‘s great for sure, but a final would be even better and dare I say winning the actual trophy itself would be the icing on the cake… Let me stop for a second: I’m starting to get ahead of myself here! After being slightly envious of my former PE teacher of being able to watch and remember England’s last two semi-finals at Italia 90, England’s last World Cup semi-final ( top ) and Euro 96, England’s last semi-final in a major tournament ( bottom ), I now have the chance to watch England’s first semi-final in 22 years! Let’s hope it goes better than the last two! Wait, why shouldn’t we be though? No-one would have thought England would have made it here in the first place with our third-ever youngest squad at a World Cup, let alone a manager in Gareth Southgate who was only appointed in 2016 following a spell as caretaker manager in the wake of Sam Allardyce’s acrimonious dismissal from his role as England manager after only 57 days. That’s the beauty of it all, in truth. This England team, albeit being largely helped by finding themselves on the side of the draw devoid of ‘big names’ such as Brazil, France or Germany have exceeded all expectations and find themselves just one game away from the country’s first final in a major tournament in over half a century! Although Croatia really do present a considerable obstacle to overcome, if England are going to make that final; with Zlatko Dalić’s side possessing a very experienced team with quality in almost every position, especially in the form of Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, two of the finest midfielders on the planet today, capable of turning any game in their favour. For some reason though, I don’t think we genuinely need to be fearful of Croatia because I’ve seen enough from this England team over the past few weeks to suggest that this young team is starting to come of age. Midfield maestros: Real Madrid midfielder and Croatia captain Luka Modric ( top ) and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic ( bottom ) present formidable obstacles for England to overcome in order to reach the World Cup final. Don’t get me wrong, Croatia still do pose a great threat but with England’s backline growing in confidence as the tournament goes on; Pickford and Maguire, especially, Henderson, Alli and Lingard bringing dynamism in midfield along with arguably the only world-class striker on both sides, captain and the World Cup’s leading goal-scorer Harry Kane, not to mention Kieran Tripper’s excellent delivery from crosses and set-pieces, I feel like we are more than a match for Croatia, so this will be a tough test but a massive chance to make a World Cup final, if ever there were to be a more ideal opportunity to do so… (Although I’m sure Croatian fans everywhere will be thinking the exact same thing too!) Three Lions? We have more than that in this team… Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford ( 1st picture ), centre-back Harry Maguire ( 2nd picture ), midfielder Jordan Henderson ( 3rd picture ) and captain and the tournament’s leading goal-scorer Harry Kane ( bottom picture ) provide a solid spine that fills me with confidence ahead of tonight’s semi-final… Admittedly, what has struck me the most over these past few weeks has been the sheer euphoria and jubilation across the nation that greets every single England win! Whether it’s looking on social media and witnessing thousands of people deliriously celebrating each England goal (I must admit the scenes in Box Park Croydon are a personal favourite of mine), “#WaistcoatWednesday” gripping the country as people do their best Gareth Southgate impressions donning their own waistcoats or even the hordes of people dancing in the street all over the country and singing “It’s Coming Home!”; this all has contributed to intense feelings of national pride and patriotism, perhaps not seen since Euro 96′ (and yes, I am even saying this taking into account the country’s mood after the London 2012 Olympics.) ” It’s Coming Home!”: Throughout this World Cup, I’ve loved watching the celebrations around the country, like at the Croydon Boxpark ( top ) and the national support for England has grown continually to the point where 22 years after its initial release – the song “Three Lions” by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and Ian Broudie ( bottom ) reached number 1 in the UK Singles Chart for the first time in 20 years. Indeed, amid Britain’s plummeting diplomatic relations with Russia and the country’s almost-farcical march towards Brexit that has just swallowed two more Cabinet members: Brexit Secretary David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, England’s World Cup campaign has been a much-welcome breath of fresh air for us all to enjoy and even managed to permeate the country’s bleak and gloomy political landscape, with Andrew Marr introducing his Sunday Politics’ show, donning a Southgate-like waistcoat and subtly directing a tongue-in-cheek quip at Prime Minister Theresa May, stating how ” A big confrontation with Brussels looms. Those who have waited are now blessed with a calm, decisive leader they can believe in. So thank you, Gareth Southgate. ” ” Thank you, Gareth Southgate” BBC’s Andrew Marr ( above ) is just one of many people over the past week to take a liking to Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat, with today even being deemed ” #WaistcoatWednesday “. All of this is why I have such little time for people who are oblivious to the great, positive, unifying effect this World Cup is having on this country at the moment. This is more than just football. This is a country being given a new lease of life, with every step closer England take towards July 15th, the FIFA World Cup Final, the biggest game, not only in football but in world sport today. (the last final in 2014 attracted a peak global audience of 3.2 billion viewers!) To put it all into context, using an excerpt from Tom Fordyce’s article on the BBC Sport website: ” The peak television audience for the deeds of Michael Vaughan’s team (England’s 2005 Ashes series) was 8.4 million; 15 million saw Jonny Wilkinson drop his goal (England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup win). Andy Murray’s first Wimbledon victory (in 2013) brought in 17.3m, and that was a win for Great Britain. England’s last-16 win over Colombia peaked at 23.6 million. Wednesday night’s semi-final is likely to draw in yet more. Only football can do this. ” ” Only football can do this.” England’s 2005 Ashes win ( 1st picture ), England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup win in extra-time ( 2nd picture) and Andy Murray’s 2013 Wimbledon win ( 3rd picture) were all dwarfed in TV ratings by England’s round-of-16 penalty shootout win vs. Colombia ( 4th picture ) Wouldn’t it be poetic justice though, if Gareth Southgate, the tragic hero who missed ‘that’ penalty at Wembley at Euro 96 to put paid to England’s best opportunity to win a trophy since 1966 goes on to become the manager that finally ends 52 years of hurt in Moscow in the final on Sunday? Oof, I can feel the chills going through my spine right now! We can all dare to dream, right? Just take a step back and look at how Southgate’s team have had that ‘dream’ from the start of the tournament and where it’s gotten them now. So tonight, millions across the country at 7pm will be holding their breath for at least 90 minutes (or maybe more) to see if they can keep dreaming all the way to July 15th or whether that “sweet dream” will turn into a horrible nightmare… Either way, I think former England captain Alan Shearer put it best when he said “Whatever happens… these [England] players will come back as heroes. They now have the chance over this next week to come back as legends.” Can we do it? Well, we’ll know for certain by the end of the night… So all that’s left to say is: “COME ON ENGLAND!” Keep us dreaming, lads… Could it be? – Could England manager Gareth Southgate, the man who missed the crucial penalty in England’s last semi-final in Euro 96 ( top ) become the man to lead England to their first World Cup triumph in 52 years ( bottom) ?! Posted by Sheffield United 1 Bristol City 2 Reporter: Joel Miansiantima Scorers: Clarke (48’) Paterson (43’), Flint (90’) Attendance : 24,023 Flint strikes late to break Blades hearts at Bramall Lane Aden Flint’s late winner boosts high-flying Robins in dramatic victory against 10-man Sheffield United Defender Aden Flint scored a last-minute winner to seal a hard-fought win for Bristol City at Bramall Lane in a gripping encounter against fellow surprise promotion contenders Sheffield United. The centre-back’s close-range volley for City’s second in the 90 th minute sparked delirious celebrations in the away end, as Bristol now sit just three points off an automatic promotion spot in third. Meanwhile, United, who admittedly did dominate this encounter for long spells now drop down to sixth and are now winless in their last four games, with John Fleck’s dismissal in the 2 nd half further compounding their woes. Battling Bristol snatch the win: Bristol City players ( above ) celebrate after their last-minute winner at Bramall Lane The other United vs. City clash this weekend The Manchester derby ( above ) at Old Trafford this Sunday wasn’t the only big game with “United vs City”… Billed as the battle of the Championship’s up and coming English managers, both Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United and Lee Johnson’s Bristol City have well exceeded their teams’ initial expectations this season; entering Friday night’s fixture on 37 points apiece in the play-off positions in fourth and third place respectively. Best of British : Chris Wilder ( top ) and Lee Johnson ( bottom ) have both started very well with their respective clubs this season. Blades lack cutting edge in first half From the first whistle, Wilder’s men looked intent on banishing any lasting effects they may have had from their surprise defeat at Millwall last weekend. The home side allowed Bristol little time on the ball in the opening stages, pressing the visitors high up the pitch as they aimed to return to winning ways. In the week the South Yorkshire side announced plans to increase their stadium capacity by 5,400; it was somewhat interesting to see swathes of red seats at Bramall Lane, with the atmosphere notably subdued in large portions of the first half. Although, United midfielder Mark Duffy in the absence of influential midfielder Paul Coutts from a broken leg, played a key role in breathing some life into the home crowd. The 32-year old Liverpudlian forced Bristol keeper Frank Fielding into a smart save at his near post as well as curling a free kick from the left-hand side onto the post on the far-side. Captain Billy Sharp, who had four goals in five games against the Robins before this game came close with a looping shot that crashed onto the bar as the pressure mounted on Bristol. Thankfully, City keeper Fielding rose to the challenge presented to the away side; producing a sensational save from Sharp’s arced header after a United corner, somehow tipping the striker’s effort onto the bar to the sheer disbelief of the home crowd, not least Sharp himself. Eventually, this failure to score came back to haunt the Blades, when against the run of play, left midfielder Jamie Paterson put Bristol 1-0 up before the break with a brilliant goal, showing quick feet to create space for himself before unleashing a strike from 20 yards past keeper Simon Moore. Pat on the back for Jamie: Jamie Paterson’s brilliant strike opened the scoring in the match to give Bristol a fortunate lead. . Foolish Fleck’s red card changes the game If Blades fans were frustrated at dominating the first half with nothing to show for it, fortunately they only had to wait three minutes for their goal in the second half when Championship top-scorer Leon Clarke fired in Sheffield United’s equaliser for his fourteenth league goal of the season. From this, the home side then took firm control of the game with Duffy once more striking the post with a swerving shot as United threatened to add to Clarke’s leveler. Rich vein of form: Championship top scorer Leon Clarke ( left ) levels the scoring with his 14th league goal of the season. Yet the complexion of the game sizably changed when Sheffield United were reduced to 10 men, after John Fleck’s reckless two-footed tackle on Robins’ forward Korey Smith, who was then forced off with a badly bruised ankle. Following this, Bristol visibly grew in confidence and prompted Blades keeper Simon Moore into making a sharp save from Marlon Pack’s deflected shot before experienced defender Richard Stearman was alive to block the rebound from Matty Taylor. Fleck red turns game on its head: John Fleck’s dismissal for his dangerous tackle on Korey Smith leads to a change in Bristol’s fortunes. Towards the game’s closing stages, it was obvious to see both managers were intent on clinching all three points, based on their attacking substitutions. Ironically, it was a defender who was to have the final say in this match when in the 90 th minute, Bristol centre-back Aden Flint latched onto Bobby Reid’s ball into the box and impressively connected with a low volley to dramatically secure all three points for the away side. Flint ( above ) scored his sixth Championship goal on Friday; the most scored by a defender this season Man of the Match – Aden Flint: Flint seems an obvious choice after his match-winning contribution at Bramall Lane, but the 28 year old centre-back was the linchpin of the Robins’ defence throughout the game, excellently organising the team in a resolute, disciplined performance. On top of that, Flint made 12 clearances during the match, the most of any player as well as winning all of his aerial duels. A well-deserved award for a tremendous display. What next? Sheffield United, in sixth travel to face Preston at Deepdale next Saturday after this devastating defeat, in hope of ending their four-game winless run in the league. On the other hand, Bristol, in third will aim to continue their great start to the season at home against Nottingham Forest. Five key facts Bristol City are now unbeaten in their last 10 away league games in the Championship ( W6, D4 ) In fact, City now have more away points in the Championship ( 22 ) than the whole of last season ( 17 ) This was Lee Johnson’s first win against Sheffield United in any competition as manager. ( 1W, 4D, 1L ) Sheffield United have now gone four league games without a win for the first time since August 2016. ( 3L, 1D ) Striker Leon Clarke has now scored 10 league goals in his last six appearances for Sheffield United. Match facts: Sheffield United 1 Bristol City 2 Possession: 46% / 54% Shots on target: 6 / 4 Corners: 7/ 4 Heading for disaster? My review of Alan Shearer’s documentary Heading for disaster? My review of Alan Shearer’s documentary Last month, ex-professional footballer Alan Shearer produced a documentary with the BBC titled “ Alan Shearer: Dementia, Football and Me ”, where the former England captain set out to investigate a potential link between footballers regularly heading a football and those who go on to suffer from a form of dementia in their later years. Amid recent news of the FA and the PFA commissioning a long-awaited study on this contentious issue next month and calls for heading in Britain to now be banned for children below 11 years old, here in this feature I review Shearer’s documentary and ultimately provide my own take on this debate. Alan Shearer ( above ) investigates whether repeated heading of the ball can cause significant brain damage that can lead to dementia. Before I start this feature, I would just like to give thanks to Alzheimer’s Research UK, Dementia UK, Alzheimer’s Society and the Jeff Astle Foundation, who all provided me with the necessary information to become more informed on the subject of dementia. I would also like to give a special thanks to Dawn Astle, who kindly took time out to speak to me on the phone about her work with the Jeff Astle Foundation. Finally, I would really like to thank my friend and fellow journalist Amy Ringrose, who initially proposed the idea for me to write a piece on dementia in football back in May. Something that always stood out for me playing football growing up was when my coaches used to say “Don’t be silly, heading the ball won’t hurt you. Only you not heading it properly will hurt you”, as I’m sure millions of young children have had affirmed to them by coaches growing up. Therefore, you can then imagine my surprise when I came across a story this May that revealed three of England’s 1966 World Cup winning heroes: Nobby Stiles, Ray Wilson and Martin Peters have all been suffering from dementia for more than a year said to be possibly linked with regularly heading a football during their playing careers. Nobby Stiles ( top ), Ray Wilson ( centre ) and Martin Peters ( bottom ) were all members of England’s 1966 World Cup winning squad, but all now suffer from dementia. Thankfully, with the help of the BBC, former Newcastle and England striker Alan Shearer made a documentary last month in search of the true answers to the questions that I, along with some others may have been asking for a while. Could an act so embedded and routinely executed in football potentially be a life-threatening one? And if so, how could such a pressing issue not be at the forefront of the minds of people in the game? If I felt aghast at what I read in June, I truly dread to think what Shearer must have thought about this information; having scored 46 of his record-breaking 260 Premier League goals with his head on top of the countless times he would have practised heading in training… o The tragic story of “The King” Although, these are questions which frankly should have been answered many years ago, especially for the family of the late Jeff Astle, the former West Brom and England striker proclaimed the “ King of the Hawthorns ”, which is where Shearer begins his documentary. Sitting in the stands, the ex-Newcastle man converses with Astle’s daughter Dawn, as she speaks candidly on how her father, a renowned header of the ball had tragically passed away from dementia in 2002 aged just 59. This first part of the programme is admittedly heart-wrenching, as Ms Astle describes how her father’s health and personality deteriorated in the years before his death, from happening to continually forget his grandson’s name until the point her father “was 59 when he died, but he looked 159”. “The King of the Hawthorns” – Jeff Astle ( above ) scored 174 goals in 361 appearances for West Brom and scored in every round of the FA Cup en route to the final in 1968, in which he scored the winner. Even someone typically as stoic as Shearer appears evidently moved by the sadness within such a poignant story, in which Astle also states that her father’s death was officially ruled as being down to “industrial disease”. In layman’s terms, Jeff Astle had officially died from repeatedly heading a football during his career, a landmark ruling at the time, instantly making viewers aware of the gravity of the issue in question. o The science Next up for Shearer is a trip up north to Glasgow to visit Dr Willie Stewart, the neuropathologist who analysed Jeff Astle’s brain in 2014. Stewart reveals Astle’s cause of death was discovered not to be Alzheimer’s but chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) or “boxer’s brain”, a form of severe brain damage often found in boxers after their deaths. In a laboratory, Shearer, with the help of Stewart examines several samples of brains from past athletes who had died from CTE ( not something I would suggest watching whilst eating your dinner! Certainly, Shearer’s initial look of disgust at the brains is priceless! ) and proceeds to shockingly expose via microscope the severe trauma apparent all the way through Astle’s brain. Shearer ( left ) looks at brain samples of athletes who have died from CTE in Scotland with Dr Willie Stewart, ( right ), the man who re-diagnosed Jeff Astle’s cause of death in 2014, as death from CTE after analysing the.ex-West Brom player’s brain. Following this, neuroscientist Dr Michael Grey delivers an insightful explanation into what happens in the brain when a football player heads a ball. He explains how when a player performs a header, their brain slightly wobbles in their skull due to the force of the ball travelling through the skull. He also highlights how concussions can happen when the force of the ball is too strong when a player heads it; leading to symptoms for the player such as seeing stars or headaches. On the other hand, sub-concussive brain injuries, where there are no obvious symptoms but there has still been damage in the brain, are potentially the most dangerous form of brain injuries because a player may still repeatedly head the ball even after this due to a lack of clear symptoms, something that may initiate sizeable long-term brain damage. Dr Michael Grey explains sub-concussive brain injuries when they occur are the most dangerous form of brain injuries, as there are no visible symptoms after heading a ball but there is still some brain damage that occurs, exacerbated by continual heading of the ball. o My three reasons for a lack of progress From this point onwards in the documentary, I felt as if I was informed enough to know that repeated heading of a football could quite feasibly be a significant cause of dementia in footballers in their later years. However, I was perplexed at how many years after the death of Jeff Astle in 2002, and with the mounting research evidence alerting scientists to the potential dangers heading can have on the brain, the general public still do not definitively know if this is actually the case. Although, after watching the rest of Shearer’s documentary, I have narrowed it down to three reasons as to why sufficient answers on the matter have still yet to be found… 1. Funding for research A recurring theme in this programme is the urgent need for more funding to be available for organisations and charities attempting to conduct research to establish stronger conclusions on the effects of regular heading on the brain. CTE, for instance is a form of dementia only discovered after death, so pathologists like Dr Stewart are not able to observe the effects of this disease during a person’s life and can only work with the limited samples of brains they receive from deceased athletes willing to donate their brains. Therefore, a conclusive link between regularly heading the ball and CTE has not been confirmed, as other factors such as heads colliding when two players jump to head the same ball or receiving a number of elbows into the head in a match whilst challenging with opponents for the ball may also be involved in causing the disease, so Dr Stewart emphasises the need to Shearer for more research to be conducted before any conclusions are made. What I must say did impress me in the documentary was the ground-breaking research being done at the University of Stirling in Scotland, assessing the long-term impact of heading in football. Shearer visits the university and becomes the 20 th player to participate in a study to observe the immediate effects of heading on the brain, conducting a cognitive test, balance test and “transcranial magnetic stimulation” (when electric shocks were sent through Shearer’s skull to test how quickly his brain can send an impulse to his leg for the muscle to contract. Pleasant viewing, that!) and comparing the results, both before and after heading a ball 20 times, which is fired into him at 20 mph. Shearer participates in a study at the University of Stirling, assessing the immediate changes in the brain before and heading the ball. The results showed that Shearer had no significant change in his balance, performed better in his cognitive test before heading the ball (which did make me laugh, as the ex-England man did not perform all that well in that test, so God knows how the second test went!) and there was a disruption in his normal brain chemistry after heading the ball. These changes were not necessarily alarming, but researchers did stress there was no evidence displaying the cumulative effects of heading a ball for example, 50-100 times in succession and having to repeat this the following day. At this point, Shearer stresses the need for universities and organisations like these to receive more funding to carry out adequate research and calls upon football clubs and authorities to encourage as much research on this matter to be done as possible. As for why this has not been the case however, leads into my next reason for a lack of progress… 2. Inaction from the top “ They [the FA and PFA] should be screaming from the rooftops for these players ”. These are the words of Dawn Astle, founder of the Jeff Astle Foundation, a charity working to raise awareness and campaign for further research on the issue of brain injury in sport. Since her father Jeff’s death in 2002 from dementia (later found to be CTE), 15 years ago, Ms Astle has repeatedly attempted to engage the Football Association (FA) and Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), English football’s players’ union in setting up a study to thoroughly investigate the effects of repeated heading can have in causing CTE in footballers but unfortunately, she has constantly seen her efforts come to no avail. Dawn Astle ( above ), founder of the Jeff Astle Foundation has been left disappointed at the FA and PFA’s efforts to investigate the link between repeated heading of the ball and CTE in footballers. In her conversation with Shearer, Astle recalls how the PFA and FA started a study in 2001, monitoring the effects of regularly heading a football on approximately 30 youth players, but no conclusions were reached, as none of the players became professionals, meaning the urgency from the FA and PFA to investigate this subject faded away, something that Astle called “bitterly disappointing”. In August, I was actually fortunate enough to speak with her on this matter. Ms Astle informed me on how in a past meeting with Gordon Taylor, the PFA’s chief executive, she had tried to directly address the issue of dementia in football but Taylor instead expressed how osteoarthritis was an equally pressing concern for the union to address. Understandably, Ms Astle reasoned with me that although osteoarthritis “may be painful, it doesn’t kill people” whereas “dementia kills people, so is more dangerous and so should be given more importance, so to speak”, so the PFA’s lack of specific focus on dementia, for her was staggering. Jeff Astle, in 2014 was the first British professional footballer to have CTE confirmed as their official cause of death, and “will not be the last”, according to Ms Astle but she worryingly states to Shearer in the documentary that “football doesn’t seem to want to know”. Astle’s disillusionment with the football authorities’ inaction is mirrored by John Stiles, son of Nobby Stiles, former Manchester United midfielder and World Cup winner with England in 1966. From the moment Shearer asks his first question, it is honestly compelling to witness just how direct Stiles is with his responses and how strongly he feels about this issue. John Stiles ( left ), son of Nobby, is compelling when explaining his take to Shearer on the issue of dementia in football. “Poorly” is the answer we immediately receive when Shearer enquires about Nobby’s health, as we are told of the 75 year old’s advanced dementia. This conversation continues in the same vein, as John asserts his conviction that the effects of heading a ball can definitely be linked to dementia, but vents his anger at how this ”has been known for a long time since Jeff Astle’s diagnosis… [but] nothing’s been done” Most of all, the insufficient financial support from the FA and PFA is Stiles’ greatest source of ire, as he states dementia is “treated as old-age” where “you’ve got to cover the costs up yourself” and even reveals how most families with an ex-footballer with dementia “have had to sell their house to pay for the care”, This perhaps leads to his most pertinent point of all: “If that’s caused from heading the ball, that’s a disgrace”… Those words reverberated through my mind, leaving me to contemplate how so little can be done on something clearly affecting innocent footballers suffering from dementia, whose only crime may have just been to continually perform a seemingly harmless act whilst playing the game they loved. The subsequent burden these players’ families have then had to endure without much assistance from those at the top is also very distressing. So, this all led me to devise one more reason why progress has taken so long; and this reason is potentially the most devastating of the three… 3. Reluctance to change How can something ever become a serious problem if it never perceived as much by the people this problem affects? This, in essence may be what has held back any progress on discovering whether repeatedly heading the ball induces dementia. Long-held beliefs that employing the correct technique doesn’t cause footballers any physical harm when performing a header as well as an unwillingness to challenge this principle unless sufficient research proves otherwise both could be placing the health of footballers in jeopardy. Indeed, as explained earlier, significant research cannot go ahead without funding. Without this, firm conclusions on dementia in football cannot be made, resulting once more in scepticism from people in football on these research findings and culminating in a vicious cycle of stagnation on this issue. Heading drills like the one above would have coaches endorsing the correct technique of heading. Former Chelsea and England captain John Terry’s conversation with Shearer is an apt example of this frame of thinking in football. The 36-year old, now with Aston Villa articulates how he encourages his children to head the ball, reckoning that correct technique will lead to his children meeting the ball with better contact, rather than letting the ball simply hitting his children’s heads, supposedly preventing damage. This highly contradicts Dr Grey’s comments on how harmful heading can be, especially for children, so here I use an excerpt from the Guardian’s Sam Wollaston in saying “ Got it, head the ball harder so as not to do any harm. Well done, John. ” Former Chelsea and England captain John Terry ( above ) debatably asserts that teaching his children the correct technique of heading will prevent them from having significant brain damage in the future. In all fairness to Terry, he does not say this with any malice to willingly inflict harm upon his children. What strikes me most though is Terry’s reticence to stop his children heading the ball without any sufficient evidence, a common theme throughout the documentary by a number of footballers currently involved or that have been involved in the game. Former professional player and manager Chris Nicholl complements this idea perfectly when he sits and discusses his health with Shearer, who had made his professional debut under Nicholl at Southampton in 1986. As amusing as it is to have Shearer slyly air his grievances at his former manager over past training sessions, it is Nicholl’s attitude here that becomes a major cause of concern. The Northern Irishman instantly makes it known he believes heading has affected his memory for the last 4-5 years, to the point now where, he occasionally forgets where he lives, but confesses he has yet to visit a doctor about his problems. Ex-Southampton manager Chris Nicholl ( above ) arguably produces the most frustrating moment of the documentary when talking to Shearer. It is just obvious to sense the growing frustration within Shearer when addressing Nicholl at how dismissive his former manager is with his own health. This also disappointed me because Nicholl doesn’t even try to rectify this problem, just emphasising how he “wouldn’t change a thing”, a statement rich in its blissful ignorance; avoiding the harsh reality of his condition. Chris Nicholl ( left ) in conversation with his former player Shearer, ( right ).with the Northern Irishman having given Shearer his first appearance in professional football at Southampton in 1988. Returning to the earlier topic of families bearing the brunt of living with an ex-professional footballer with dementia, Shearer visits the home of Matt and May Tees. Matt was a professional striker in the 1960s and 70s, but now suffers from dementia after forging a career from making heading his speciality. In all honesty, he appears to us a charming man, even chipping in with a joke here and there to add some levity in the room, in contrast to the seriousness created by his condition. Yet May, his wife of 50 years explains how difficult dementia has made it living with Matt and discloses that she is certain her husband’s past regular heading of the ball has contributed to his condition, even providing notice of eight people Matt played football with in his youth who suffer from dementia. Matt Tees ( above ), ex professional footballer in the 1960s and 1970s is a charming man, who unfortunately suffers from dementia. All this makes the following part of the documentary that much harder to watch when May describes how she “felt sick” watching her two teenage grandsons Joe and Matthew heading the ball in a match; knowing the impact this could have on their brains. Almost straight afterwards, her grandsons enter the room, and Shearer, after an initial meet and greet questions these young footballers on whether they are comfortable heading the ball, despite the troubling condition of their grandfather and the emotional distress heading causes their grandma. “I felt sick” – Matt’s husband May ( left ) tells Shearer of how uneasy she felt watching her two young grandchildren head the ball in a match. Interestingly, the boys respond saying they are still keen to head the ball, even if a link is shown between heading and dementia and even after talking about this with their grandma, with Joe in particular reasoning the leather footballs in their grandfather’s playing days were much heavier when wet, “whereas nowadays, they’re [modern footballs] quite light”. Incidentally, Shearer later in the documentary actually supports this statement whilst at the University of Stirling, when a leather football initially is found to be 40 grams lighter compared to a modern football when weighed but when soaked in water for two hours, the same football incredibly becomes 200 grams heavier than a modern football. Is banning heading for minors the answer? The United States Soccer Federation has already taken precautions in protecting the welfare of young children playing football , introducing a ban in 2015 on heading for children up to the age of 11 in both training and matches and limiting practices on heading in training for under-12s and under-13s. Consequently, there have been calls from the PFA for the same measures to be carried out in England, which has drawn mixed responses from people in the game. The United States Soccer Federation has banned heading for children under 11, following the initial link of repeated heading of footballs to dementia JohnStiles in the documentary strongly believes that England should follow America’s example and ban heading for children under 11. He argues that “coaches shouldn’t be throwing missiles at kids’ heads for them to head it back” and he also uses the uncertainty of the true effects of heading to dissuade Shearer on how “until we know, they [the PFA] should absolutely stop kids heading balls”. His last words to Shearer yet again raises strong emotions when reminding the audience of the personal impact this issue has had on him, speaking on how his eldest son had wanted to become a footballer, where Stiles conveys that “ if my boy ends up developing problems… I’m almost complicit in that”. On the other hand,Shearer’s former strike partner at Newcastle, now QPR’s director of football Les Ferdinand confesses to his ex-teammate that even though he is aware of the debate on heading and dementia, he would like to see more evidence before effectively taking action and making major changes within QPR’s training set-up. Although, Ferdinand does admit the news was a “major concern” for him personally when he first heard it, after he made it his “mission” to head balls during his career, following a racial slur by a coach. Thus, in response to this news, I was glad to hear that Ferdinand has introduced the use of softer balls in QPR’s training when practicing heading with young players as a precaution, until further research is available. ReUnited: Former Newcastle United teammate Les Ferdinand ( left ) said recent news linking heading to dementia was a “major concern” for him. Ultimately, the dearth of conclusive evidence is proving to be a large problem on the topic of whether children under 11 years old should be allowed to head the ball. Dr Michael Grey explains how children’s brains are shown to not have physically developed enough to have the necessary neural protection for their heads when heading a football, so they may be susceptible to a higher amount of damage when heading, compared to adults. Dr Grey though, does state there is not enough evidence to categorically link this to subsequent problems with children’s cognition in school or in later life but does worryingly express that ”I wouldn’t want my children… heading a ball day in and day out” . What next? Thankfully, the FA and PFA have finally commissioned a study that will commence next month to investigate whether footballers are more at risk of developing dementia from repeatedly heading the ball, in comparison with the general population, so credit where credit is due in that respect. Furthermore, I suppose the FA and PFA deserve even further credit for no longer waiting for FIFA and UEFA’s support before commencing this study; allowing the results to be collated and used to form conclusions as soon as possible, which can only be a good thing for football in truth. All cards on the table here, I am very happy to see their plans for investigation next year, but the documentary admittedly did not fill me with the utmost hope in the FA and PFA’s role in supporting more research and studies. For instance, towards the last moments of the documentary, Shearer sits down with Gordon Taylor to discuss dementia in football. In just the first question, Shearer asks Taylor if the PFA is aware of exactly how many of its 50,000 members have dementia, to which the PFA chief executive admits he does not know this number. Cue the alarm bells . PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor ( above ) admitted the PFA has no certain idea of how many of its 50,000 members currently have dementia. Even when Shearer meets the FA’s medical performance director, Charlotte Cowie at the FA’s headquarters in St George’s Park, I was not entirely convinced with her answer to Shearer’s question of how many footballers have dementia. Cowie refers to a research project designed to find out the true numbers of footballers with dementia, which does hint at some progress from the FA but the fact a real answer or even an estimate is not provided to Shearer highlights the scale of which the FA and PFA have not been actively involved in investigating dementia in football. However, Cowie also relays to Shearer how emotionally involved she feels in her role after meeting with Dawn Astle and how the story of Dawn’s late father Jeff has moved her to want to uncover the true answers about dementia in football, something I can directly empathise with from speaking to Ms Astle myself. Therefore, I’m hoping this emotional connection can drive Cowie to find the answers that Astle’s family and others have been desperately craving for over 15 years. Cahrlotte Cowie ( pictured in 2008, above ), the FA’s medical performance director mentions in the documentary that she feels emotionally involved in producing answers about the link between heading and dementia, after speaking to Dawn Astle. My final verdict As a whole, this documentary is brilliant; covering all the key issues involved with football and dementia, gathering opinions from various types of people looking at the subject of dementia in football (players, families and scientific experts) and excellently raises awareness of what may have been an under publicised topic in the media. Furthermore, Shearer in this hour demonstrates that he is as a good a presenter as he is a pundit on Match of the Day, ensuring the audience understands everything the scientific experts discuss throughout the documentary. He also displays the right balance between assertiveness and gentleness to ask the right questions the audience are looking to hear. Most importantly though, Shearer’s presenting style feels authentic, (even if at times, he doesn’t always come across as a natural), so the audience feels they are actually engaging with Shearer’s true personality rather than a false portrayal of himself only meant for the television screen. Shearer is excellent as a presenter in this documentary, in turn helping the audience to turly understand the serious nature of the discussion on dementia in football. When looking back at all the information covered in this documentary, like Shearer I personally would not move just yet to completely ban heading for children under 11 years old, purely for the reason that not enough research has been done to confirm that repeatedly heading a football can directly cause dementia. However, I do think that measures should be put in place from now to safeguard young children heading the ball such as using softer balls for heading like in QPR’s training sessions. Also, a time limit of 20-25 minutes for example, should be in place as to how long young children are allowed to practise heading in one training session to prevent any potential long-lasting brain damage in children from sub-concussive brain injuries. . In my view, children under 11 should not be banned from heading the ball but as of now, measures need to be put in place to ensure the children‘s safety when practicing heading in training or matches. Finally, in the documentary, I noticed how no person from the PFA and FA actually offers an apology for the lack of action made with establishing a link between heading and dementia, with Charlotte Cowie merely expressing “the FA just needs to get this done”, in regards to the study planned for next year. In effect, I can see where Cowie is coming from here. Apologies may just prove too late for many families that are severely disgruntled at having no answers, and indeed Dawn Astle in a recent interview echoed this, stating “I am still angry and upset. It will be 2018 when the study starts… 16 lost and wasted years… players are dying” but Astle does say she is “relieved” at the study going ahead so everyone “can get some closure”. Therefore, I understand that the families of footballers with dementia may never be entirely happy, considering the waning health of their loved ones but they can at least be grateful that steps are finally being taken in the right direction towards the truth. I am sincerely hoping the results from the study, whatever they are will help gradually heal the rift between these families and both the PFA and FA and will hopefully provide the long-awaited news that we dearly need to make football a safer sport for all future generations playing “The Beautiful Game”. Posted by

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