LONDON — Earning a place in a Premier League club’s academy offers an irresistible path to fame, glory and wealth. Parents, though, are becoming increasingly aware of the potential health risks their children will be exposed to.
At Manchester City, offering reassurance and trying to allay concerns about any long-term brain damage caused by blows to the head now starts long before a professional contract is on offer.
“When we have young academy players — and we are talking 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 — we get the parents in and talk to them about it,” City club doctor Matthew Brown told The Associated Press. “Concussion is a massive issue.”
Just last week, Ireland forward Kevin Doyle retired from soccer after complaining of repeated headaches from heading the ball and concussions while playing for the Colorado Rapids in Major League Soccer in recent months. It was a preventative measure by the 34-year-old former Premier League player to try and avoid permanent damage.
Medics are yet to verify definitive links between impacts to the brain and the early onset of dementia within footballers, and Ireland assistant coach Roy Keane was dismissive of Doyle’s anxieties on Tuesday.
“If you’re worried about the physical side of any sport, then play chess,” Keane said. “It is part of the game, players picking up injuries. (Doyle) is a center forward, and he gets a few knocks from center backs. I’m sure he has given out a few himself.”
A notoriously tough midfielder during his playing career with Manchester United and Ireland, Keane is trying to protect the game’s physicality. Governing bodies, though, realize they cannot be indifferent if football is to blame for retired players suffering from degenerative brain diseases.
In research published earlier this year, six of 14 former players were found to have signs of Alzheimer’s disease after their brains underwent post-mortem examinations. The Football Association and Professional Footballers’ Association in England are stepping up the research being undertaken, and the way Alzheimer’s or memory loss has afflicted several members of England’s 1966 World Cup winning squad has sharpened the need to investigate.
Geoff Hurst, who scored a hat trick in England’s 4-2 win over West Germany in the 1966 final, will launch an Alzheimer’s Society walk next week to raise awareness.
“Dementia is becoming one of the most serious illnesses and it is increasing,” Hurst said. “My involvement with the players from my squad who have got it is seeing how the families deal with it all, and it is arguably one of the most debilitating aliments families can face.”
Hurst believes Martin Peters, the other scorer at Wembley 51 years ago, would no longer recognize him.
“If you have a physical disease, or a broken leg, you can recover from it and get better in time,” Hurst said, “with dementia it only goes one way, albeit at different levels.”
It’s why families of fledgling players are starting to take note of the risks. Manchester City’s medical team tell parents of academy entrants that the playing style championed throughout the club by first-team manager Pep Guardiola — keeping the ball on the ground — isn’t just aesthetically-pleasing. It’s safer too, according to City’s doctor.
“At Manchester City we have a philosophy of football, we play beautiful football,” Brown said. “There isn’t a lot of heading. I am not going to say there isn’t ever any heading because obviously there is.
“When I speak to the parents of these young kids about concussion and any concerns they may have and the hypothetical risk of links to dementia at an early age, I say to them ‘as a club we are doing everything we can to both limit heading, (and) diagnose, assess, manage and rehabilitate head injuries’.”
In 2015, the U.S. Soccer Federation recommended a ban on headers for players 10 and under in a bid to address concerns about the impact of head injuries. The United States has also seen a $1 billion settlement between the NFL and thousands of its former American football players who have been diagnosed with brain injuries linked to repeated concussions.
“I don’t imagine we are going to change the rules of football because of this situation,” Brown said. “Obviously, there have been some quite publicized reports of ex-professional players that have dementia. But we’ve done a bit of work with experts around the country and they’ve said at the moment there’s no exact link between heading the ball and concussion or chronic traumatic encephalopathy .
“In the future will they ever prove a link? I don’t know. I think there are so many variables, I really do. So all we can do is just reduce the risk to the player.”
The family of former England striker Jeff Astle, whose death at age 59 in 2002 was attributed to repeatedly heading heavy, leather balls, has been pushing for better protection for modern players. The priority for the Astle family has been convincing football to recognize the problem even exists.
“It is very encouraging that, for the most part, football is beginning to take the issue of concussion seriously and, along with more research, a cultural change is beginning to take place,” Peter McCabe, chief executive of the Headway brain injury association, said in response to Keane’s comments at the Ireland training camp. “It is vital that we continue to conduct more research into the potential long-term implications of heading footballs to ensure people are able to make informed choices.”