Football’s governing bodies have committed £3.6 million to new research and clinical advice for recently retired former players who face an elevated risk of dementia.
The funding, which forms part of a new “brain health action plan” that has been agreed by English football’s main stakeholders, will include support towards a new project led by Prof Willie Stewart, the Glasgow neuropathologist who proved football’s dementia link.
Stewart, alongside Prof Craig Ritchie of the University of Edinburgh, will work with a group of Scottish ex-professionals to examine potential interventions that could modify risk across all contact sports.
“We need to pursue research to understand what is happening in their brains to try to identify possible targeted therapies,” said Stewart. “But, while doing so, we should also act to try to mitigate risk. The alternative, doing nothing, means we are in effect leaving them to fate.”
Stewart has also urged the authorities to consider seriously whether heading is fundamental to football’s long-term existence.
Dr Charlotte Cowie, the Football Association’s head of performance medicine, believes that there are “modifiable factors that could make a difference to the ultimate outcome”. There are 12 known potential risk factors for dementia, including head impacts, but also issues such as high blood pressure and social isolation.
The study will receive £1.2 million of funding, while a further £2.4 million will go towards allowing former footballers to access the new advanced brain health clinics that the Rugby Football Union announced last month. There is enough initial funding to support 200 former footballers over a period of six years.
It all follows a letter to the FA this year by a group of prominent ex-players, including Alan Shearer, Stuart Pearce, Terry Butcher, Micah Richards, Gary Pallister and Emile Heskey, which outlined their concerns and called for a new national strategy.
The FA is also promising an awareness campaign on concussion and its heading guidance, which recommends no more than 10 training headers per week in grass-roots football and no more than 10 “higher” force headers among professionals. There is an acceptance that enforcing this guidance is impossible but it is hoped that coaches and players will come to understand their precautionary importance.
Permanent concussion substitutes are being trialled but Cowie said that the FA remained open to the sort of temporary replacements used in rugby union. “There is an argument both ways – we are not wedded to permanent,” she said.
Maheta Molango, the Professional Footballers’ Association chief executive, said that dementia in football should be “the top priority for all involved” in the national game. Dawn Astle, whose father Jeff died 20 years ago next month, said that she was delighted by the progress. “We hope that this issue is finally being made the priority that it should be,” she said.
The Premier League has this season implemented Hawk-Eye video replays to support head injury assessment and has signed up to the new action plan, along with the FA, the PFA and English Football League.
The possibility of a long-term care fund, which would provide financial support to the hundreds of families in acute need, is also being considered.