The Professional Footballers’ Association wants new protocols this season to reduce heading in training and has promised “action” rather than "long campaigns” to tackle football’s dementia crisis.

In an interview with The Telegraph, PFA chairman Ben Purkiss said that there was overwhelming support within the 13-strong players’ management committee for England to become the first country in world football to formally limit heading in training. The PFA also wants to immediately involve two of the union’s fiercest critics – Dawn Astle and Chris Sutton – in a new dementia advisory group.

PFA's action plan to help tackle football’s dementia crisis

The PFA now intends to meet at speed with medical experts and key stakeholders, including the Football Association, the League Managers’ Association, the Premier League and the English Football League, to draft formal guidance that would mitigate the dementia risk to its players. This would mean examining evidence around the number of headers, the type of headers and recovery time between practicing heading in training sessions.

Research by the Liverpool Hope University found that a majority of players failed a pitchside concussion test after just 20 headers. Another study by the University of Stirling also showed that there was an immediate disruption in normal brain function and a significant reduction in memory function following as few as 20 regular headers from a corner kick. This did return to normal after 24 hours and Dr Willie Stewart, who was involved in that research, has suggested a break of 48 hours between sessions of 20 headers. There are no current plans to make any changes to how matches are played. 

“Raising awareness is strand number one,” said Purkiss. “The second strand is a formal engagement with stakeholders and developing guidance, protocols and procedures that everyone understands the benefits of and everyone follows. It is crucial that this is a collective approach.”

Asked if this season was realistic, Purkiss said: “Certainly I think this season is a realistic target. What has become apparent, particularly over the last year, is that players want action on things. They don’t want long campaigns. That’s our challenge. I think that regulating heading in training is a small, simple change. 

“We could look at regular breaks between training and heading. Look at the numbers. The type. It’s clearly an area where players can have a real impact. They are the ones experiencing it. They are taking the risk. They are the ones with uncertainty over their long term futures and their long term health.”

The FA introduced new heading guidelines for youth football earlier this year, including a ban on primary school children, but have not so far recommended any changes to adult football.

This is despite research, which was published last year by the University of Glasgow, showing that former professional players were 3.5 times more likely to die of neurological disease than the wider population. The Telegraph’s five year campaign – Tackle Football’s Dementia Scandal – pushed for this research and has called for limits in adult training as part of six key changes. 

The Telegraph’s campaign – Tackle Football’s Dementia Scandal

The PFA has now committed to addressing each of those six points, including how it responds to the families of former players who are currently living with dementia. Many feel deeply let-down by the limits not just of the financial help but emotional and practical support. There will now be a major push within the new advisory group to urgently create a comprehensive care structure that diverts far more of the PFA’s resources to dementia care and research. The PFA is also backing concussion substitutes and the recognition of dementia in football as an industrial disease.

“One of the things that we want to do with this group is connect with those people who have knowledge in the area but also those who have been critical – we want to take their criticisms on board and identify how we can improve,” said Purkiss.

“Dawn Astle’s involvement in this group will be invaluable because of the work she has done and the knowledge she has. The campaigning she has done has been fantastic. It is really time to engage with people.”  

The FA, the Premier league and the EFL have not yet responded to the PFA’s proposal but the FA suggested on Friday that its focus was further research which determines the precise cause of football’s link to dementia.