Denis Law: Man United legend diagnosed with dementia
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And now Terry McDermott… the cast of football favourites afflicted by dementia grows ever greater. At the end of a week in which the sport lost Gerd Muller, who had lived with Alzheimer’s for the final six years of his life, and in which Denis Law revealed he had been diagnosed with dementia, McDermott’s brave words in these pages come as another jarring blow.
The former Liverpool and England midfielder has now announced his battle against the disease just a few days after Manchester United hero Denis Law admitted he has Alzheimers and vascular dementia.
For McDermott and Law, two contrasting but wonderful players whose presence brought so much to the game, it is a devastating diagnosis.
They will have witnessed colleagues fall prey to it, shared the pain of their decline and crossed their fingers it would not be them next. Sadly it is.
The common theme – as with the Charlton brothers, Nobby Stiles and so many others besides – is that they headed footballs as part of their job.
There can be no definitive proof that one led to the other – societal factors may well be at play too – but a study from Glasgow University has concluded that footballers in outfield positions are four times more likely than the general public to develop dementia in later life.
Put simply it has become an industrial disease.
When confronted by news like this it is comforting to fall back on the sporting lexicon and back our stricken heroes to fight the disease in the same way they fought on the field of play.
The truth is these are hollow words. It is hard to fight an invisible enemy which we do not yet know how to defeat. There is no cure for this cruellest of adversaries, the memory thief who can take away all that we hold most dear.
Science may yet find a way and the many initiatives to fund research could be lifelines in the future but for the present we are left dealing with what we can affect.
Life cannot be risk-free, nor should it be, but football needs to look hard at where it needs to go next on the issue of head impacts and the links to long-term neurological deterioration.
Synthetic footballs are lighter these days – that is a start. Law used to deliberately skip heading sessions with Huddersfield in his latter career having been spooked by the headaches he used to suffer from earlier in his career.
The ceiling of ten forceful headers per week in training set for professionals in England this season is a step in the right direction too. Reduce the number and severity of the impacts and it stands to reason you reduce the risk to the player.
But is that enough? Does the sport need to go further? And if it goes further does that mean tinkering with the game itself?
Headers are an intrinsic part of football. They account for around one in six of the goals scored in Europe’s top leagues each season.
Some picture a rising Cristiano Ronaldo, others a horizontal Andy Gray – for me the thumping majesty of the perfect header is personified by Keith Walwyn, a son of Nevis decked out in York City red. From the adjacent terraces at Bootham Crescent the awed audience were close enough to hear the sweet sound of the thunderous contact.
A well-executed header can be the abiding memory from a game of football but Dr Willie Stewart, who led the Glasgow University study, says if we want players to remember those headers themselves in later life, the evidence is such that the sport must now ask itself the existential question of whether they are absolutely necessary.
It is a road football is reluctant to go down.
If headers were outlawed nearly all head impacts, save for the odd bump in a tackle or from a swinging arm, would go with them. Football would, at a stroke, be a safer game.
It would not be the same game though. Ask great men like McDermott and Law, even knowing what they know now, and they will insist the header must remain, that the glorified five-a-side which would result from such a swingeing change would make football a shadow of what it is now.
There is no appetite at present for scrapping the header but maybe there might be room for a halfway house.
A study last season showed there were around 100 headers per game in Premier League matches. That number rises as you go down the professional leagues.
How many of them are actually vital to the outcome of a match? Could those figures be reduced, say by restricting heading zones to inside the penalty area?
No more clanging return headers from a goalkeeper punt, no more scruffy midfield airborne duels no-one cares about. Would they be such a big loss?
It is time to start the conversation. Perhaps this isn’t the solution but one thing is for sure, maintenance of the status quo is not worth it for the price these heroes are paying.
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