Dawn and Laraine Astle have spearheaded the campaign to highlight football's dementia crisis so heroically since 2002 when an inquest ruled that Jeff Astle’s death at the age of 59 was caused by heading footballs

Credit: DARREN O'BRIEN

The Jeff Astle Foundation has urged football to immediately get behind new proposals to limit heading in training after hearing from about 30 new families of former professional players with dementia just this month.

The issue has been thrust back into the spotlight following the death of Nobby Stiles, news that Sir Bobby Charlton is also living with dementia and a landmark inquest ruling which found that former Wales international Alan Jarvis had died of “industrial disease”.

Former England strikers Sir Geoff Hurst and Gary Lineker called for limits in training last week and they were joined on Saturday by Alan Shearer, another of the country’s greatest goalscorers, who wants concussion substitutes to be introduced immediately.

“What’s there to trial?” Shearer asked. “Other sports do it. Get on with it and do it. Why does it take football so long to make decisions? Nowhere near enough has been done – it’s about time that changed.”

Dawn Astle, Jeff’s daughter, who runs the charitable foundation, has been inundated over the past three weeks, and she is hearing from more and more families with loved ones who played in the 1970s and 1980s with synthetic, rather than leather, footballs.

Alan Shearer, who has helped with research into the effects of heading a football, is one of many to call for immediate action such as the bringing in of concussion substitutes 

Credit: BBC

The Professional Footballers’ Association decided on Friday to push for heading restrictions in training and, while the Football Association has suggested that more research is needed, Astle said that there was now sufficient evidence on the “balance of probabilities”. 

In that, she is backed by Dr Willie Stewart, the Glasgow neuropathologist who proved football’s dementia link and Dr Don Williams, the doctor who advised the coroner at her dad’s inquest.

“On the balance of probabilities, heading is a problem and the burden of proof now lies with bringing forward evidence that it is not a problem,” said Astle.

Stewart’s research showed that footballers were 350 per cent more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease than the wider population but the gap between heading exposure and the onset of dementia – usually at least several decades – makes it almost impossible to quickly prove the connection.

Several studies, however, have now shown changes in the brain and a temporary reduction in memory function after a short training session of 20 headers. It is also known that heading a goal-kick can cause a similar g-force as a tackle in American football and that head trauma generally is linked to dementia. 

Dr Williams first started investigating the issue in 1981 and warned that meaningful change to protect players must not be stifled by a “cycle of research”. He believes that the body of evidence in favour of taking a precautionary approach is overwhelming and, as well as heading limits in adult training, wants a complete ban for all under-12s and for players to take regular cognitive tests.

“Dementia is probably the most distressing disease as it attacks and destroys our very being,” he said. “What must be understood is the fragility of the brain and the fact it is this amazing computer. No one would use a computer or tablet or iPhone to whack a ball without it being damaged. During heading, the cerebral cortex hits the inside of the skull.

“Dementia in footballers is an industrial disease. It is time to start the process of prevention. I feel deeply frustrated that so little has happened.”