It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that football has been appallingly slow at confronting the terrifying reality that heading could be killing generations of players.
Some experts are imploring the game’s powers-that-be to ban heading given mounting evidence that it could cause dementia – a move GOAL vigorously backed five years ago.
But there is no sign that this will happen imminently, so could virtual reality (VR) help in the interim?
Scientists at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Institute of Sport are trialling Player 22, a new VR platform, which is designed to train footballers to head a ball without exposing them to the potential dangers of doing so.
Player 22, created by the Manchester-based cognitive development and analysis company Rezzil, involves users wearing a pair of VR goggles while undertaking a set of virtual tasks aimed at improving their footballing skills.
Rather than heading an actual ball, players head a virtual one.
Andy Etches, co-founder of Rezzil, told GOAL: “There is an obvious benefit to reducing the number of times a player heads the ball in practice.
“This is especially important in young players, as acknowledged by recent rule changes at federations across the world.
“Rezzil can help ensure that players are still able to practice and develop the skill of heading in a non-contact way.
“We’re mid-way through a body of research that may link the two together, but it’s reasonable to assume that we can help here.”
VR’s intervention appears crucial in light of the growing fears among the medical community that heading can have fatal consequences.
Former professional players are over three and a half times more likely to die due to dementia, and over five times more likely to die due to Alzheimer’s disease than the general population, according to a landmark study published in the journal JAMA Neurology last year.
The University of Glasgow’s Dr Willie Stewart, who led the Football’s InfluencE on Lifelong health and Dementia risk (FIELD) research, told The Guardian: “With the current data, we’re now at the point to suggest that football should be sold with a health warning saying repeated heading in football may lead to an increased risk of dementia.”
Dr Stewart’s stark revelation must have come as a crushing blow to the burgeoning number of footballers and their families who have suffered from this savage and merciless disease.
It will be 20 years in November since the former West Brom and England striker, Jeff Astle, became the first British footballer to have been ruled by an inquest to have died due to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a type of dementia.
In the case of Astle, who was just 59 when he died, the low-level brain trauma was proved to have developed from the repeated heading of footballs.
Five of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning team — Ray Wilson, Martin Peters, Nobby Stiles, Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Jack Charlton — have all suffered from the degenerative disease since Astle’s death in January 2002.
Countless other footballers of lesser renown have also been afflicted by the devastating condition, but the news of legendary names’ struggles appears to have jolted football into action.
Children under the age of 12 in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland were in February 2020 banned from heading the ball in training, mirroring similar moves in countries such as the United States.
Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer were among the former England players who released a joint statement last year urgently demanding that the footballing authoritiesly implement a new strategy to tackle the sport’s dementia crisis, which the “terrified” group labelled a “ticking time bomb”.
The FA, Premier League and EFL, endorsed by the players’ union, have since announced guidelines limiting “high-impact” headers to 10 a week in training.
Such measures are inadequate, however, according to Dr Stewart. He said they were “not based in science” and insisted no category of header created less risk.
Enter VR and its much safer proposition.
Manchester Metropolitan University Institute of Sport researchers have been testing how effective Player 22 is in improving the heading technique of a player by comparing the skills of those training with and without the VR system.
Dr Greg Wood, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the Manchester Metropolitan University Institute of Sport, told GOAL: “Research has shown that heading ability may mitigate the risk of subconcussive events in football players.
“So, we are investigating whether learning to head the ball in VR improves ability without exposing player to the repetitive impacts of heading the ball.
“We have three groups of university footballers taking part: a control group who do no heading training; a VR group who train in the VR simulation over three 30-minute sessions over 10 days; and a physical practice group who train actual heading in the real world for three 30-minute sessions over 10 days.
“We take pre- and post-measurements of heading skill in the ‘real’ world and also measure perceived heading ability and confidence.
“We are currently analysing this data and hope to have some results in the coming months.”
Dr Wood is excited to be involved in what “could be a revolution in sports training”.
“In my opinion, virtual reality has an important place in elite sport,” he said. “We just need to find out where it is best used to have the biggest impact on player performance and well-being.”
After the current trial, he said he planned to launch a further study consisting of a longer training period, with more participants and “probably with better players”.
Rezzil’s Etches is confident his technology could be widely used by professional teams and academies to reduce contact time with the ball for heading practice.
He said: “Unfortunately, the teams [using the technology currently] Don’t allow us to use press statements with their names, but we work with six Premier League teams and players individually from across the EFL. We also work with a few others across the world, including international federations and league teams.
“There’s no reason why Rezzil couldn’t be used for learning set-pieces along with practising general timing and frequent game situations.
“I believe it will become a normal part of training at all levels of the game as time goes on. We are already working with elite teams, individual pro players and grassroots players in this area.”
Dawn Astle, daughter of Jeff Astle, backed Rezzil’s innovation.
Astle is leading a dedicated dementia department in the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) as part of the union’s driver to ensure support for former players with neurodegenerative diseases is “a top priority”.
She told GOAL: “I think anything we can do to reduce this horrendous increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases in our footballers has to be welcomed.”
Whether football needs to go even further and outlaw heading absolutely remains a matter of intense debate.
Dr Wood is not in favor of this happening just yet, however.
He said: “I think the incidence of ex-professional players suffering from dementia is very alarming, but I don’t think there is enough understanding of the contribution that heading a football has played in this process to ban it completely from the game.”
“It could be that advancements in ball design, and maybe even a style of play in modern football that produces less heading, could lessen the risk of disease in modern footballers, but it’s really difficult to say.
“We certainly need more research into the effects of football heading on brain development and function.”