New academic research has found that an intense period of heading footballs can cause short-term memory loss and eye focus, the Mail on Sunday can reveal.
In a development which further underlines the need for research into the neuropsychological effects, scientists from Liverpool Hope University tested 20 amateur footballers after asking them to head 20 balls in quick succession.
They concluded that the effects on memory and ‘saccadic’ eye speed — the ability to use both eyes to rapidly refocus on different points — were ‘glaring’.
Dr James Roberts, a specialist in motion control at the university’s Health Sciences department, said he had been surprised by the findings, which came after the players were asked to head back balls from a throw-in.
‘When the players were tested immediately afterwards, there were clear effects,’ he said. ‘There was a decline in both saccadic eye speed and short-term memory. That’s concerning when you consider most recreational players will have to go about their everyday lives, such as drive home after a game.’
The study was also designed to test whether ball pressure made much material difference to players heading a ball, though it did not. Dr Roberts said further tests, including a control group, would be required before any definitive conclusions could be made. That is now to be carried out.
The findings come a week after the Mail on Sunday revealed work by eight medical establishments worldwide had concluded that the risks of developing motor neurone disease are more than eight times higher among those who sustain repeated blows to the head and spine in top level sport.
The Mail on Sunday has been campaigning for three years for more research into the long-term effects of blows to the head in sport, revealing in 2016 the findings of a Stirling University study which claimed changes to brain function can be caused by everyday head impacts associated with heading footballs.
Former Tottenham midfielder Ryan Mason — who at 27 is now a youth coach at the club — added to the debate last week, expressing concerns about the effects of heading on young players.
Mason was forced to retire from the game in 2018 after sustaining a fractured skull as a Hull City player in a heading duel with Chelsea defender Gary Cahill. Mason said he thinks children should be using sponge balls for heading so they can learn a safer technique while their skulls are still developing.
‘If you’ve got a seven-or-eight-year-old heading a solid ball, and the brain and his bone in his skull isn’t fully developed, then that could potentially be doing damage,’ Mason said.
‘I look at some kids and they head the ball with the top of the head and their technique is all wrong, therefore the pressure that it’s putting on the brain is a lot more.
‘I don’t think kids should be heading real balls.
‘The older you get, you get more experience and your heading technique gets better. Maybe bring in sponge balls to learn the technique and gain that experience of actually challenging for a header. I don’t think repetitive heading at a young age is doing the kids any good, that’s for sure.’
The United States have had a ban in place for the past three years on under-11 players heading the ball. There are also limitations for 11 to 13-year-olds.
‘America is probably more advanced than England in terms of research, and they have taken the measure of actually banning it up to a certain age,’ added Mason. ‘So maybe we can follow those footsteps to protect our kids.’
Professional Footballers’ Association chief Gordon Taylor has also argued for a similar restriction to be in place here.
The Football Association said it is ‘committed to researching and examining all areas’ of head injuries in the game, including the long-term effects on players.Daily Mail