• Exclusive: PFA want heading limits in place this season

You can sense the unease as Ben Purkiss, the 36-year-old chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association, reflects on some of the experiences of his own very recent playing career.

There was the day that he was concussed following a heavy collision and all he could remember was lying on the physio bed and being asked the score. “I didn’t know the answer and yet I had finished the game,” he says. “I didn’t remember anything of the game and yet I still trained on the Monday. It didn’t make any sense to me or my family.” 

There was the heading drill, aged just 14, when his academy coach would launch ball after ball from the halfway line for him to head clear from inside the penalty area. There were those Monday mornings when you had conceded from a near-post set piece on the Saturday and knew that you would then be heading 20 or 30 balls away from the space. Or sessions practicing headers direct from goal-kicks, a drill which, according to research by Purdue University, generates similar g-force as an American football tackle or a boxer’s punch.

“People would be coming in from some of those sessions with sore heads,” says Purkiss, whose career spanned spells at Sheffield United, Gainsborough, York, Oxford, Darlington, Hereford, Walsall, Port Vale and Swindon. “There can be a lot of pressure. I practised heading every day at certain stages. I was never great at heading but I was tall so people expected me to be good. I practiced a variety of heading.

“I’ve been thinking about it especially the past few weeks. I don’t know what the future holds. It is worrying. We need to look at prevention as much as we possibly can for current players.” 

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The issue has been under review at recent meetings of the PFA’s management committee and, while it was not something that players tended to proactively raise, it did often emerge as a concern once you actually asked them. This has become increasingly evident during media interviews with numerous former players. “I think if you ask players whether they would change their career, they wouldn’t and I’m the same,” says Purkiss, “but knowing what I do now, there are things I would have done differently. And, if you look at Thiago Silva’s recent feedback that, for me, was him raising a concern or awareness.”

Silva said that he had been experiencing headaches following recent aerial battles in the Premier League and, among the PFA’s management committee, there was overwhelming support for limiting heading during training. “It was almost unanimous,” said Purkiss. “And that was coming from some really experienced players who have headed a significant amount of balls.”

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They include the England women’s captain Steph Houghton, whose husband Stephen Darby was also a professional footballer and has been diagnosed with motor neurone disease. The precise cause cannot be definitively identified but we do now know that former footballers are 3.5 times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease than the wider population. And we do know that a session of only 20 headers causes temporary changes in brain function.

“There is a lot that we don’t know – but there is a lot we do – and there are simple things that we can do,” says Purkiss. “I don’t think anyone at this moment is saying that heading is taken out of games. It is a technique – there are always different ways of developing techniques. People will innovate, they will adjust their practice and it will still be a skill that is involved in games. It is a small tweak that has huge benefits. 

“I hope that if there is anyone out there practicing heading from goal-kicks every day that this has already raised that awareness. I know from speaking to older players that some of them will avoid heading balls if they can in certain circumstances. I did towards the end of my career. I was more experienced and in a stronger position. When you are that up and coming player at 20, 21 or 22 – and actually that is when your brain is forming still – it is very difficult.”

As well as internal stakeholders, the PFA intends to reach out to other sports and industries, notably American football and has no compunction about stepping forward on this before the wider football world. “It is for us to raise awareness at Uefa and Fifa to protect players abroad as well,” he says. “We have input of former players, input of former players’ families and input of the science. I think it’s for us to take the lead on that and protect the members. It is a serious welfare issue.”