Talking point

Heading ban trial for under-12s: a ‘watershed moment’ for English football

Deliberate heading could be removed from kids matches from the 2023-24 season

The English Football Association (FA) has announced that a new trial to remove deliberate heading in matches at under-12 level and below will be introduced for the coming 2022-2023 season. 

Granted approval from the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the body that determines the laws of the game, the FA will now invite leagues and competitions across the country to take part in the trial. 

Described as a “landmark” trial by The Telegraph, England will become the first European country to ban heading in children’s football “due to fears over the link between head impacts and devastating neurological disease”.

In a statement the FA said that if the trial is successful, it will apply to IFAB for a law change that would see the removal of deliberate heading from all matches at under-12 level and below from the 2023-24 season. 

Previous steps to restrict heading 

In February 2020, the football associations of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland issued new guidelines so that children aged 11 and under will no longer be trained to head the ball. The guidelines also ushered in heading restrictions for all age groups under-18, with limits on how much heading older children should do. Coaches were advised that there should be “no heading in training in the foundation phase” – which covers primary school children, or under-11 teams and below.

At a professional level, a joint committee led by the Premier League, and including the FA, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), the Women’s Super League and the English Football League, said in February last year that it was working towards protocols to make England the first country to formally limit heading in training.

Link between heading and injuries 

A study published in October 2019 found that former professional footballers are three-and-a-half times more likely to die of dementia than their peers. Researchers at Glasgow University confirmed the link between football and brain damage after investigating claims that heading the ball could cause brain injuries.

In 2020, two of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning team – Nobby Stiles and Jack Charlton – lost their battles with dementia. Former Manchester United star Stiles was the fifth member of the 1966 squad to have been diagnosed with the brain injury disease.

Geoff Hurst, who scored a hat-trick in the 1966 final, said in November 2020 that there should be a ban on kids heading footballs at a young age and backed calls for clubs to limit heading in training sessions. 

“It is becoming a bigger issue every day,” Hurst said. “The bigger the issue gets, the more difficult it is for people in the higher levels of sport to step away from dealing with it. There is a strong, inarguable link. Anything that can be done to increase the research around this will be hugely beneficial to current and former players.”

Reactions to the new trial 

Former West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle was another ex-player who died after suffering from brain functioning diseases believed to be linked closely to heading footballs, the BBC reported. His daughter Dawn, who is the project lead for neurodegenerative diseases in football at the PFA, welcomed the trial and called it a “logical and sensible” step by the FA. “We want all our children to enjoy their football, but they must be able to play safely,” she said. 

Dr Adam White, a senior lecturer in sport and coaching sciences at Oxford Brookes University, said the trial was a “watershed moment” for football. “This will not only help prevent concussions, it will also help stop CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy],” he said. “We need to protect kids’ brains from these repetitive head impacts.”

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