“Could the parents of Les Ferdinand report to the dressing rooms,” came the announcement over the tannoy at White Hart Lane. With only minutes to play, Spurs led Aston Villa 3-2. It was 1997 and Ferdinand had just scored his first two home goals in Tottenham colours. There was to be no hat trick. A severe head injury saw Ferdinand stretchered from the pitch. A fan’s voice cut through the silence that settled over the stadium: “Do you think he’s dead?”
Officially, Les Ferdinand is an unremarkable 5’10”. Yet many of us remember him being far taller. “Sir Les”, as he came to be known, would always put his head in where it hurt. Often it did. Before this substitution, he’d already returned to the action once, following a frightful thump to his skull.
Physios treating a concussion in Les’s day had few protocols to follow beyond a simple test: “How many fingers am I holding up?” Failure to answer correctly might result in the deployment of smelling salts – with all their mystical powers – but rarely, if ever, substitution. So Ferdinand bravely returned to the pitch, and climbed to flick on the next high ball; never mind if he didn’t know who, or where, he was. This time, however, there would be no running it off.
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Thankfully, the call for his parents proved precautionary. Three days later, Ferdinand was declared fit to start the north London derby at Highbury.
On Thursday, the Scottish Football Association announced plans to ban children under 12 from heading the ball, and for good reason: a University of Glasgow study released in October showed that former professional footballers are three-and-a-half times more likely to die from dementia and other degenerative brain diseases than the general population.
Only months before the publication of these findings, Glasgow had mourned the death of footballing icon Billy McNeill. McNeill’s legendary status in the city was confirmed in 1967, when he captained Celtic as they became the first British team to lift the European Cup. He had been diagnosed with dementia in 2010.
Like McNeill, former England international Jeff Astle was renowned for his ability to head the ball. In 2002 and aged just 59, Astle died from dementia. His family, through the Jeff Astle Foundation, has campaigned to raise awareness of brain injury in sport, and to lobby for change.
At present, experts can’t categorically say that it is heading the ball that accounts for these illnesses. But any amateur player who recalls the headaches following a game where they’ve headed the ball more often than they’ve kicked it will know it’s only a matter of time until the evidence is indisputable. Professionals like Ferdinand – who headed the ball not only on match days, but during drill after drill, week after week, season after season – now face an anxious wait. Will the game they loved end up killing them?
The English Football Association has no plans to follow the lead of their Scottish counterparts, telling the BBC that there is “no evidence to suggest that heading should be banned in youth football”. This is symptomatic of football authorities, most of which are playing for time by calling for further studies; say the risks weren’t known before now; point to the differences between modern synthetic footballs and the old heavy leather stitched balls that soaked up water and became rock hard.
It’s instructive, however, to note that America has banned children from heading the ball since 2015; the United States Soccer Federation took action following mounting evidence of brain injury in contact sports (as well as a class-action lawsuit against US Soccer from young players’ parents).
The questions for football’s governing bodies are these: how much evidence is enough for action to be taken? And how many players’ lives will be endangered while we wait?