THERE are many sticks out there with which to beat the Scottish Football Association. Take your pick. The cost of football for fans? Go ahead. Their seeming reluctance to tackle the sectarianism that still blights our game? Sure, take a pop. There’s plenty of low-hanging fruit there just ripe for the picking.

But criticising the SFA for trying to protect kids that play football from a heightened risk of brain disease in later life? Well, I’ve got to be honest, I didn’t see that one coming.

The news that the Scottish game’s governing body is set to ban heading the ball below and including under-12 level seems on the surface of it to be a proactive step in reducing the risks of diseases such as Alzheimer’s or dementia, and a laudable one at that.

The SFA taking action on such an important issue doesn’t mean those other topics necessarily get moved to the back burner, either. Tackling dementia can hardly be classed as fiddling while Rome burns.

It appears that many experts in the field agree. Dr Willie Stewart of Glasgow University, the consultant neurologist who conducted the ‘FIELD Study’ last year - commissioned by the PFA in England - into the increased risk of brain disease for footballers, unsurprisingly welcomed the move.

I raised this in a column in early November, when the SFA were considering what steps to take in response to Dr Stewart’s findings. When comparing the medical records of 7,676 men who played professional football in Scotland and were born between 1900 and 1976 against more than 23,000 individuals from the general population, Dr Stewart found that footballers were five times likelier to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, approximately four times likelier to get motor neurone disease, and twice as likely to have Parkinson’s disease in later life than Joe Public.

So, having called for the SFA to act upon this information at the time, it seems only fair to praise them for showing initiative and being pro-active as they try to redress those stark findings.

Dawn Astle, the daughter of West Brom legend Jeff, who tragically lost his life aged just 59 in 2002, was also supportive of the move. Astle died of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a form of dementia that is caused by brain injury. The coroner ruled it to be an industrial injury, brought on by the repeated trauma of heading footballs.

Speaking in the Daily Record, Dr Chris Nowinksi, a neuroscientist who graduated from Harvard and is adamant that repeated trauma to the brain is linked to a heightened risk of dementia, was also delighted by the SFA’s move.

“There’s a lot of money in the game and you also have a global organisation running it that has credibility issues, FIFA,” said Dr Nowinski. “That all contributes to not acting.” So, fair play to the SFA for venturing where the likes of FIFA dare not.

The blowback against this move seems to come from people who are concerned about the intervention of the ‘nanny state’, but surely it is preferable to see a generation of so-called ‘snowflakes’ being raised than a generation who will go on to have higher risks of debilitating and deadly brain disease?

Perhaps your objection to the proposed ban comes from a concern that the skill of heading will become a lost art, but having watched Scottish teams for the last 30 years, perhaps an emphasis on keeping the ball on the deck and working on technique with the feet rather than the head may be no bad thing. Maybe the suggestion put forward by Rangers manager Steven Gerrard yesterday, that kids could work on their heading technique with lighter balls (sponge balls, perhaps?) would be a workable compromise.

Fears that this will open a dam that will eventually lead to heading becoming outlawed across all football seem fanciful and far-fetched. If FIFA are proving intransigent when it comes to even taking steps to protect children from the risks of repeatedly heading a ball, then they are hardly likely to sanction such a major change to the senior game before Glasgow is under the Clyde. So, a decade or two at least.

The dates of the FIELD Study conducted by Dr Stewart of course may skew the findings a little when you take into account that the balls being headed by the players of the past, who are now in middle age or beyond, will have been much heavier than the footballs of today.

That is true, but until more is known about the effects of even modern footballs on children when their skulls are still developing, then surely a cautious approach is the right one.

So, credit where it is due to the SFA. Prevention has to be the main priority when there is no available cure.


PERHAPS it is because I have worked in newspapers for a number of years, where the tradition of ‘banging out’ colleagues who are leaving the business is dying out due to repetitive strain injury, but it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for the underperforming - and well paid - ‘senior pros’ who have been shown the door at Hearts.

Footballers can be a strange breed. I have nothing against the likes of Glenn Whelan and Christophe Berra feeling a little sore over their departures, particularly Berra who has enjoyed great times at Tynecastle, but new manager Daniel Stendel’s responsibility is to keep the club in the Premiership, not soothe the bruised egos of the men who are partly responsible for the position they are in.