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Craig Salmon’s soapbox – Footballers will carry on heading despite the risks

Preston North End's Alan Browne goes up for a header with Queens Park Rangers' Eberechi Eze (left) and Toni Leistner
Preston North End's Alan Browne goes up for a header with Queens Park Rangers' Eberechi Eze (left) and Toni Leistner

Rod Taylor has become the second known footballer, following Jeff Astle, to die from a form of dementia. Craig Salmon looks 
at the risks associated with heading a football on the brain and whether the practice should be outlawed in the game

In my younger days, I wasn’t too bad a footballer – well good enough to get a game on the local parks around Lancashire for a variety of clubs on a Saturday afternoon.

Playing in the centre of midfield, I’ll always remember playing on the pitch situated on London Road, in Preston, which was surrounded by an athletics track.

Positioned in the centre of midfield, a big steepling ball came heading in my direction.

Looking to get my head on the ball and show that I was the dominant midfielder on the pitch, I readied myself for the imminent impact.

Unfortunately, I mistimed my jump and the ball ended up catching the top of my head and flew out of play.

At that moment in time, I thought nothing more of it until a few minutes later I began to feel ever so slightly dizzy and my vision began to blur.

In the changing rooms at half-time, our big targetman of a centre forward Eric could see my distress and came over to see what was wrong.

‘Everything is all blur, Eric!’ I said. ‘I think it’s after I headed the ball’.

Eric, who was probably better with his head than he was with his feet, put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Don’t worry about it Craig! It’s concussion. I’ve had thousands of ’em. Just get a wet sponge and squeeze it on the back of your head’.

I did as Eric said and went out for the second half, although the next45 minutes passed by in very much of a blur. The subsequent evening was torture as I spent the majority of it vomiting and nursing a splitting headache.

Thankfully, my symptoms subsided and I began to feel normal the following day.

Although frightened by the experience at the time, I just passed off my bout of undiagnosed concussion as just one of those things.

It’s only until recently that I have begun to wonder whether I may have done more lasting damage to my brain. Former England star Jeff Astle’s premature death at the age of 59 early this century brought the dangers of heading a football sharply into focus.

The West Bromwich Albion forward suffered from degenerative brain disease, which the coroner concluded was brought on by continuous heading of a football.

This week news has broken that Portsmouth, Gillingham and Bournemouth wing-half Rod Taylor has sadly become the second British footballer to die, like Astle, suffering from a form of dementia brought on by heading a football. Although both players are from an era where footballs were made of leather and were considerably heavier than today’s plastic equivalents, the death of Taylor has led to renewed calls to restrict heading in football – even outlawing it in games involving youngsters.

It remains to be seen whether we are facing a heading related epidemic in years to come – indeed research has shown that even a single concussion may cause lasting brain damage.

And while banning the practice of heading may be feasible in junior football, I cannot see how it could ever be implemented at senior level.

Heading is such a fundamental part of the game that players at the peak of their careers are unlikely to be deterred from using their heads no matter what the risks might be to their health in later life.