CHILDREN under 12 should be banned from heading footballs but there shouldn’t be any changes to the adult game, the former head of the SFA has said.

Former Rangers and Kilmarnock player Gordon Smith said action was necessary to safeguard young players “whose brains were still developing.”

Gordon recounted how Celtic legend Billy McNeil would practice headers daily, encouraging the goalie to kick the ball at him and then heading it back “as hard as he could” down the pitch.

Support for a change in the youth game is growing in light of fresh evidence, which showed for the first time  a direct link between dementia and football.

Glasgow Times:

The study, led by Dr Willie Stewart, at Glasgow University, found that former professional players in Scotland were five times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s Disease and overall had a three and a half times more likely to die of a neurodegenerative disease over the age of 70.

Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in American football players and was played by Will Smith in the film Concussion, has now called for an immediate ban for under 18s.

Glasgow Times:

Read more: Parents warned about head injury risk after study highlights dementia risk 

Former First Minister Henry McLeish, who played football professionally, called on the SFA  to set up a taskforce to look at the potential risks to children.

One youth football coach said a ban would be easy to enforce "because most kids shy away from heading the ball."

The Scottish Youth Football Association (SYFA) said it was in discussion with the SFA  about any “necessary recommendations while the Football Association has said there is insufficient evidence to issue a ban.

Glasgow Times:

Gordon Smith said: “I believe because of what has happened and because of the evidence we have, I do agree with the Americans that the younger kids under 12 should not be heading the ball.

“The mind is just developing at that stage. What I would say is that the younger kids should practice technique with a soft plastic ball.

“One of the biggest problems they had in days gone by was that there was a lot of practice heading sessions.

"Billy McNeil was my manager at Manchester City and he said to me his strength was heading the ball. He used to practice every day.

"He used to get the goalkeeper to kick the ball and he was head it as hard as he could back up the field and that’s something we should cut out.”
“But I don’t believe it should be taken out of the game. I think it’s very much part of game, like tackling.

"I want to keep that in football but we should take into account the danger for kids.

“If I was getting told now, this could affect you in later life do you want to stop playing football, I would say no, I’ll take the consequences.
"Its one of the elements of the sport - there is always risk.

Glasgow Times:

“The younger players might now have an element of, ‘well I’m not going to do it.’ It might be a scenario, if a ball is being hammered from a distance, they might leave it.”

Mark O’Donnell, who coaches with St Fillans Glasgow Catholic Schoolboy FA is supportive of a ban.

He said: “I've been aware of the research for some time around this. We used to do a lot of heading practise but we don’t do a lot now.

“I’m completely supportive of children under 12 not heading balls. Our organisation is the only one that has 10 and 11-year-olds playing on a full-sized, 11-a-side pitch where heading the ball is part of the game.

“The other Glasgow youth clubs play on 5 or 9 a side where it’s a foul if the ball goes above head height. “So the question would be, what are we going to do now?"

Read more: Chris Suttton: Football chiefs have 'blood on their hands' over dementia risk

Glasgow Times:

Henry McLeish, who played for East Fife, and now chairs the elite academy in the area, said he endorsed Gordon Smith’s view about children heading balls.

He said: “I think there should be an immediate group established by the SFA to inquire into the potential risks facing our children and young players in relation to 12 years old and younger. 

“The precautionary principle is vital, without diminishing in any way the real health benefits of playing football or the need for more research. 

“If there are risks then we need to discuss them in an informed, open and constructive manner”

Former England midfielder Ryan Mason has previously called for children to be banned from heading balls to prevent them suffering brain injuries.

The player’s career was cut short at the age of 26 after he fractured his skull in a clash with another player.