Burnley boss Sean Dyche pleased to see focus on dementia in football

Sean Dyche is pleased to see more focus on dementia in football.
Sean Dyche, in his Millwall days, beats former Claret Alan Lee in the airSean Dyche, in his Millwall days, beats former Claret Alan Lee in the air
Sean Dyche, in his Millwall days, beats former Claret Alan Lee in the air

This week, the Daily Mail launched a campaign, in conjunction with Alzheimer’s Society’s Sport United Against Dementia, to bring attention to the disease, unveiling a seven-point charter “for the Football Association, Professional Footballers’ Association and the game’s governing bodies to address immediately.”

The PFA responded by setting up a taskforce to examine the issue further, having been criticised for failing to sufficiently support families of players who have died of, or have dementia.

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Dyche admits he headed a lot of footballs in his career as a centre back, and while he isn’t an expert on the medical side of things, he feels there are steps that can be taken, specifically with teaching youngsters the art of heading - with sponge balls up to a certain age, while modern footballs are a huge improvement on the old leather balls with laces, that soaked up rainwater and became even heavier.

Having been involved in youth development at Watford, Dyche feels heading can be focused more on technique, which, in turn, can mean players heading the ball properly and reducing the potential knock on effects: “We haven't addressed it with the first team players. The medical side will always be open for any first team players who need any questions answered or have any doubts.

“But my view has always been, from working in the youth system at Watford, is that from a young age they should be learning with sponge balls anyway because it’s about technique.

”When you head the ball properly and appropriately, you don’t get the same knock-on effect as when it hits you at a strange angle or you don’t head it cleanly.

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“So I think the technical side of the game helps. I’m not talking about solving it by the way, I’m taking about allowing the game to progress but doing it in a very safe manner.

“The medical side will know what age is appropriate to start using a real football so that will be for them to decide. But I think that’s a start or a common sense view of it.”

Dyche admits that, although the game in many ways has become more possession-based, with the ball on the ground, heading remains an integral part: “A lot is made of the game being played in a different manner now, but if you look at the stats, you’ve still got to head the ball at some point.

”You’ve still got to head it from goal kicks, from corners, from free kicks, so unless they’re going to take that away - I don’t think that would be a good spectacle.

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“And I think it seems to be - from a logical point of view, not a medical view - from my time in football, when you look back at the age groups that are involved in some of the problems now, they were heading balls … my grandparents when they were alive, my dad, what they talk about was a whole different ball game - literally. The weight of it, the feel of heading a ball then.

“The balls now have a light sheen on them that stops the water getting into them, they’re a lot lighter - I don’t know the medical view of that, I must be clear.

“But, therefore, if you project into the future and that has a lesser effect on injuries and the knock-on effect of it? I don’t know. That’s for the medical professionals to decide, what kind of impact does harm you, against what kind of impact doesn’t. That’s more an honest view of it, I don’t know the medicine behind it, and of course no-one wants anyone having future problems - certainly not with the brain.

“Lots of players, including myself, have many other injuries around my body that are causing me trouble now. I’m 49 and they’re beginning to cause trouble but when it comes to the brain it’s a whole different ball game.

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“Heading is an art, it is a skill, it is a valuable part of the game and I don’t think that will change.

“I was an ex-centre half and played a lot of lower league football and you certainly had to use your head then in aerial challenges. I don’t think we can project yet what this era of football, if we started today, with the new science behind the footballs being used and the weight of them. I think the scientists can recreate that impact and what it does - I can only imagine that - with hopefully the funds that go into it to try and foresee the next 25-35 years.”

Those funds appear to be being made available, and Dyche feels that is a positive step: “I don’t know where the research is at so, before I give a view, it would be helpful to know the medical side of things.

”I’ve spoken clearly about my ‘logical’ side of things when I’m talking, not about players who have dementia problems now of course but the new generation - how, at a very young age, you can still teach them how to head using a sponge ball and the technique of heading a ball.

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”And then I’m sure there is a logical way that science can show a view of what age the body is mature enough to deal with the physical contact with the head.

”That would by my view, that there must be scientists out there who can show what age is appropriate for full contact.

“I think fans would still like to see headed goals, great headed clearances outside the box, things like that. So I don’t think that will change, I think the planning to get a player to that stage could change.

“That’s not a scientific view and I would support that science and the way they’re looking into it. I back that and totally support that, having been a centre-half and headed a few balls in my time.

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“I’m only 49, I hope there are no future problems but you never know. But I do think looking back in time there is a way that through academies we can still teach the art of heading and the technique involved.

“Just from a player point of view by the way, when you head the ball correctly you don’t feel anything - almost nothing - it’s only when you don’t head it correctly or you head it off, that’s when you can feel something. But in my experience of playing for 20 years, it wasn’t when you headed the ball cleanly.

“I think the new generation, they are different. Firstly, the science behind the footballs, they’re a lot lighter and have a skin on them that repels the water so they don’t gather it. And I think the way the academies have changed now. I’ve worked at academies, my lad has been at them, and I don’t remember them doing loads and loads of heading anyway. They’re being encouraged to play ion the floor as much as possible at academy level, throughout the age groups.

“I can’t honestly remember a time I watched a session, just whacking the ball down the pitch and people just heading it. I certainly can’t remember that with children in my experience. But in a game there will be a time when you have to do that. So I think there is a balance between getting the body ready to be able do that, through the right technical practices and the right understanding, and the science that says there is an appropriate age when that can occur with real footballs. At least then you have the technical ability to head the ball I the right manner.

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“But the idea of the dementia problems now and the research and the science and all that’s going into it, of course I support that 100 per cent.”

England boss Gareth Southgate recently admitted he has concerns of potentially suffering from dementia, after an 18-year playing career, but Dyche added: “It’s not something that I over think - and I headed plenty of footballs in my time - but I’m 49, maybe later in life but I can’t look into the future.”

There have been suggestions that heading could be limited in training, but Dyche wonders how prevalent it is in sessions without specific drills: “Again, I don’t think I have ever done a heading session - as in, if you imagine it, literally crossing the ball for someone to just head it.

“Now and again centre forwards will ask for that, to get their timing and technique right.

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”But there is this imaginary view sometimes that you’re doing 300 headers a day. You’re absolutely not.

“You’d be lucky in any given training session - even the centre backs and centre forwards who head the ball in a more powerful manner - you could head the ball two or three times at most.

”And that’s an adult.

”So if you can imagine kids’ football, I watch our academy from time to time and it’s very rare I see the ball flying around in the air and them heading it.

”So I think there is a reduction, just naturally, from the way the game’s changed, naturally by the way the game is coached and by the science behind the physical football.

“Hopefully they will have some way of foreseeing the future, as regards any problems in later life. But that’s a common sense view, not a scientific one.”