Gordon Smith: Why we need to introduce plastic footballs to kids’ training sessions



OVER the last year we have seen a lot reports regarding the damage caused to footballers as a result of heading the ball during their careers.

We have been been informed about many cases where the ex-player’s family are distressed by the dementia they are now suffering from. We’ve also lost a few well-known ones including Billy McNeil, who was my manager at Manchester City.

I remember chatting to Billy one day in my time at City and he said, because heading was his strongpoint, he worked on this every day. After training with the team, he would have a goalkeeper kick a ball down 50/60 yards and he’d head it back upfield as far he could. He said he would do this over 20 times a day. It was only in recent years when I knew of his severe dementia that I thought back to that conversation and have no doubt that this must have played a part in his condition.

It’s become a big issue, and rightly so, with many people calling for heading to be banned totally from the modern game.

I’ve considered the sad consequences of this but, even though I might still be a victim of this myself someday, I don’t believe we should ever ban heading from our much loved game. The balls from the era, when most of our recent sufferers played, were totally different in terms of both weight and surface material.

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The balls are lighter now by far although, I do agree that heading these too often can still be a danger to the future wellbeing of current players. When the USA banned heading for kids from 12 years and under I was totally in favour of this initiative and made this clear publicly when asked about it. This guideline has now been introduced here in Scotland and I think that we are making progress with the subject. However, people are still advocating a ban for all ages of footballers including the professional game.

I believe the way to deal with this problem is to use light plastic balls only in training in order that, at youth level, the players establish a technique for heading the ball that they can then adopt on a match day. This would continue right through to the professional game so that the only time players were asked to head a match ball would be during an actual match itself.

When I look back on my time in the game we were only really subject to heading the ball a lot when in training. In a match it would most certainly not even approach double figures. If this is the case and heading in training is with the light practice ball then I think this greatly reduces the risk.

The science has also improved greatly that even allows the medical staff in the professional game to have instruments that can determine, after a match, if a player is suffering from any level of concussion due to any having headed the ball an inordinate number of times.

If I was starting my career now and was informed that I couldn’t be a professional unless I agreed to head the ball in a match when required then I would certainly agree to do it despite the research results indicating that dementia could be a consequence of this.

Heading is an exciting part of the game and one that I certainly would hate to see removed. I think that ex-players who are currently suffering from dementia should be entitled to compensation as there could be definitive evidence that this was a result of their football activity. Going forward, if the correct safe steps are taken regarding practice and training, then I don’t see these problems arising in the future to any degree like we are currently witnessing.  The game will be safer and we’ll still have the enjoyment of watching football that would remain comparable with days gone by.

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There’s no doubt that Celtic made a mistake in going to Dubai for their training camp at a time when the virus had become more serious and the risk of being infected had increased due to the new strain.

The fact that they had approval in November should not have been a factor in deciding to go, when obviously the Government and medical services are regularly reviewing the status of the pandemic and continually changing the restrictions that need to be applied by the public, businesses and organisations. Any benefits they feel they might have attained from their Middle East break have been totally nullified. Key players became unavailable and crucial points were lost. In addition, Celtic’s reputation has been damaged as most people now regard their trip as selfish, inappropriate and futile.

As a result of what has taken place, I think the the SFA felt they had to take a lead on matters by stopping all football below the top two divisions. As the First Minister had obviously become involved in the matter regarding Celtic, I believe the SFA wanted to demonstrate that they were taking suitable measures regarding the new surge of the pandemic. By acting firmly in this way I feel they prevented the Government moving towards demanding the shut down of all professional football in Scotland.

It can be regarded as a sensible and timely decision for the higher-league teams but there’s no questions this has major negative repercussions for all other levels of the Scottish game.


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