Hearts manager Craig Levein says football dementia stats are worrying and more information is vital

Study claimed ex-professionals are three and a half times more likely to die from the illness

Friday, 25th October 2019, 6:00 am
Hearts manager Craig Levein has spoken about dementia in football

Hearts manager Craig Levein has called for more research into the link between football and dementia after a Glasgow University study claimed ex-professionals are three and a half times more likely to die from the condition.

Levein admits the situation is worrying for former players who headed footballs for decades during their youth and senior careers.

The study was commissioned by the Football Association and Professional Footballers' Association and compared deaths of 7,676 ex-players to 23,000 from the general population. The sample came from men who played professional football in Scotland, and were born between 1900 and 1976.

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It was led by consultant neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart, who concluded that "risk ranged from a five-fold increase in Alzheimer's disease, through an approximately four-fold increase in motor neurone disease, to a two-fold Parkinson's disease in former professional footballers compared to population controls".

Levein, a former centre-back with Hearts and Scotland, is concerned about the situation. He wants to see more information available to help those involved in football understand the risks better. "I probably played at the tail end of the period when the ball weighed a ton and as I was going through my career the balls got lighter," he said.

“Even as a kid I remember heading the ball when it was soaking wet. I don’t know how many times when maybe I had concussion and just played on because that was the thing that happened.

“It is worrying. I’m hopeful that because the weight of the ball has reduced the risk is less. But maybe not, maybe it flies quicker and has the same impact - I don’t know enough about it. I certainly know there will be a lot of players - particularly centre-backs and target men - who spent their whole career heading balls who will be worried."

Banning heading in football has been loosely mentioned but that may not be realistic. “It’s difficult to know what they can do from here, heading the ball is part of the fabric of the game," said Levein.

“In America they banned heading at a younger age group. I remember nine, ten, 11-year-olds still heading soaking wet leather balls. They didn’t have any coating on them that protected the balls from becoming heavier when it rained.

“I don’t know for sure but when you are younger maybe the skull isn’t as thick and that might lead to earlier problems. I don’t know, but that’s the problem - no one really knows at the minute."

Levein doubles as director of football at Hearts and oversees young players within the club's youth academy. “I would like to know more because I do think the balls are much lighter now and they are playing with smaller balls at the academy age group.

“The thing is - and I’m probably not helping here - but one of the things a lot of our kids are not very good at is heading the ball. And I just feel now that trying to encourage them to head it isn’t a good idea. Maybe getting them to head sponge balls for practice is a good idea going forward."

The issue has arisen in recent years with several former footballers having suffered from dementia. The Glasgow University study began after an inquest into the death of former West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle discovered that heading heavy leather footballs repeatedly had contributed to trauma to his brain.

“The problem is that because the people we’re talking about are well-known you tend to find out more when they’re ill," added Levein.

“Maybe somebody who went to school with me who I’ve lost touch with gets some sort of dementia, I would never know. But you find out about the players because football is such a small community in Scotland that you find out when anybody has problems.

“It’s a really difficult situation because I can’t imagine football without heading the ball. I suppose the best thing that can happen is maybe find some ways for younger players not to have to head the ball or use different types of balls.

“There’s an element of this that’s a wee bit like boxing. Once you know the risks, you know you are putting yourself in harm’s way and that’s the problem just now in football - people don’t really know the risks.

"In boxing, you do know. If you step into a boxing ring you know you’re going to get punched in the head. So you look at it and go: 'Is the amount of money I can make and the career that I have worth what the outcome might be further down the line?’

“You can gauge that, but in football the problem is you don’t know. This is quite interesting now because this is the first real study into it.

“There have always been rumours and I remember Frank Kopel’s wife talking on the radio about the situation with his dementia and saying there needs to be more investigation. I think we know why now, but it would be good to know more to help us work out the best way forward from here.”