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Dementia in football: Current players support plans to reduce heading in training, says PFA official

PFA called for heading to be reduced in training last week; Nobby Stiles became latest member of England's World Cup-winning squad to die after suffering with dementia in October; PFA also lobbying IFAB to introduce concussion substitutions

Sheffield United striker Oli McBurnie (L) has this header saved by Fulham's French goalkeeper Alphonse Areola (not pictured)
Image: Sheffield United striker Oli McBurnie heads the ball towards goal against Fulham

Current players have expressed their support for the Professional Footballers' Association's (PFA) proposals to reduce heading in training, says the union's assistant chief executive Simon Barker.

Last week, the PFA revealed it was in favour of preventing players from heading the ball in training, amid concerns over the number of former footballers who have developed dementia since retiring.

Nobby Stiles, a member of England's 1966 World Cup-winning squad, became the latest high-profile former player to die after suffering with the disease last month.

Stiles' former England team-mates Jack Charlton, Martin Peters and Ray Wilson also had dementia before they passed away, while Sir Bobby Charlton - Jack's brother - was diagnosed recently.

Nobby Stiles
Image: Nobby Stiles passed away last month, aged 78, following a struggle with dementia

Last year, the PFA Charity-funded study 'FIELD' found footballers were three-and-a-half times more likely to die from a neurodegenerative condition than the general population.

The Football Association has promised to fund research into links between heading and brain diseases, and it has already updated its guidance to say children under the age of 12 should not be heading the ball.

While the PFA's proposals to reduce heading from training would be a fundamental change to the sport, Barker says they have strong support, telling Sky Sports News: "We had a management committee meeting with current players and they were fully behind [the plans].

Sir Bobby Charlton has been diagnosed with dementia
Image: Sir Bobby Charlton is the latest member of England's famous 1966 squad to be diagnosed with dementia

"[They] wanted us to come out and try and lobby the governing bodies and the leagues in respect of taking this up and looking at this issue, alongside many other issues, about this worry.

"It's normally in training that most of the heading actually goes on, rather than games."

Barker says the PFA is also working to introduce concussion substitutions - where players can be temporarily replaced while they are assessed for concussion - into the laws of the game as another way of protecting players' long-term health.

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Iain Dowie, Paul Robinson, Clinton Morrison and Kris Boyd discuss the effects of heading the ball, and concerns over links with dementia

"There are a number of protections that are in place. We're still lobbying FIFA, through IFAB (the International Football Association Board, which controls the laws of the game) to hopefully get concussion substitutions in place," Barker said.

"We're very hopeful there will be a trial period for that, and hopefully then [that will be] put into the laws of the game, maybe in the summer.

"It's very important that we keep lobbying for this. In some other countries it's not seen as a major problem so it's important that we actually show them what the issues are.

"From January, we're hoping that there might be a trial period. I think all the leagues will look to be part of that trial and then hopefully we can get it in the actual laws of the game, which goes down to grassroots football as well."

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Everton boss Carlo Ancelotti admits he is worried about the possible links between football and dementia

'Criticism of PFA hurts'

Barker - who played for Blackburn, QPR and Port Vale during a 16-year career - also responded to suggestions the PFA has failed in its duty of care to former players, saying such criticisms "really hurt".

After Stiles passed away last month, aged 78, his family hit out at the game's authorities, saying older players had "largely been forgotten" as they struggled with their health.

Barker says the PFA needs to look at how it can improve the help it offers to former players and their families, but insists the union's good work should not be forgotten.

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West Ham manager David Moyes has urged ball manufacturers to design a new lightweight football that clubs can use for heading in training

He said: "We provide a package of care, things like home improvement to help the families, respite care. We have care costs paid for, independent specialist benefits advice, counselling for family members.

"But there are a number of families who have been unhappy with their experience. The PFA needs to listen to those people and if there is something that we are not doing, then we'd like to know what those things are. Can we improve it? What is it that we're not doing? What is it that we're doing that is not good? That surely is the right thing [to do].

"The PFA has been [at] the forefront of player welfare, looking after the rights of players. I've been part of the PFA for a long time, and some of the criticism that I've seen about the PFA has really, really hurt because I know what organisation it is. I know that the vast majority of my colleagues - who are former players themselves - have spent their life looking after players.

"For me, it's a great organisation, but if we are not living up to the levels that other people expect of us, then we need to look at that and we need to maybe change and improve. That's only right."

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