Expert warns of 'hugely worrying' number of headers in football matches

  • League Two players exceeded 20 headers 58 times this season
  • Warning comes after PFA’s call for reduction of headers

Professional players are heading the ball in league matches with a frequency that is “hugely worrying”, according to a leading academic in the field.

Statistics show that players in League Two have headed the ball more than 20 times in a match on 58 occasions this season. That figure declines higher up the football pyramid but even in the Premier League, where there are an average of 101 headers per game, players have exceeded 20 headers on seven occasions.

On Friday, the PFA called for an immediate reduction in the number of headers players undertake in training. These new numbers suggest that not only training, but competitive matches, could be putting players at risk.

The 20-header figure is central to a study conducted by Jake Ashton and James Roberts at Liverpool Hope University, who found that players who head the ball that number of times in a drill are likely to fail common pitchside tests for concussion.

Table for concussion figures

The study required volunteers to head the ball in quick succession, but Ashton believes that even spread over the course of a 90-minute match such numbers would be a cause for concern.

“The key take aways from my study are that 80% of the participants failed a common pitchside test for concussion which would recommend them being removed from play,” Ashton said. “We also saw detriments in spatial and digit working memory post-heading compared to a control group of no heading. The fact this was after just 20 headers is hugely worrying and begs the question of the effect a lifetime of heading has.

“I think the main danger [to players] is the constant load in training drills and that’s the main area to target. However, if players are heading it that much in matches it’s an even bigger concern than originally thought and, yes, it would be very worrying.

Table for concussion figures

The development comes in the week the Professional Footballers’ Association announced a taskforce to further study the issue of brain diseases in football after an outcry over treatment of a generation of players – including several members of England’s 1966 World Cup squad – who developed dementia and other neurodegenerative conditions in the decades following their playing career.

Ashton’s study suggests that the risk of neurological damage has not been eliminated from the modern game and Opta statistics show just how central heading remains to the professional game, especially in the lower leagues.

According to the figures, over the course of the 140 matches played before Friday, there have been 20,582 headers in League Two. In League One there were 16,585 over 133 matches, and 17,116 over 132 games in the Championship. In the Premier League the first 78 games featured 7,840 headers.

During those matches a player has headed the ball more than 20 times on a total of 149 occasions. In the Championship, the highest number of headers recorded by a single player was 33 and there have been 47 occasions on which a player had headed the ball at least 20 times. In the Premier League 27 is the most headers by a player in a match. In League One and Two the figure is 30, and there have been 37 occasions in League One when a player had passed the 20-header mark.

Table for concussion figures

Although a player is more likely to head the ball in training, the conditions under which they might do so during a match are more varied and potentially damaging.

“More research into the type of headers rather than just frequency is majorly important,” Asthon said. “For example, heading a corner increases angular velocity of the neck due to changing direction of the ball, possibly causing more damage than linear headers. Also, players are likely to head with more force in a match due to the competitive nature and are more likely to be in duels for headers, increasing the risk of head to head collisions.”


Paul MacInnes

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Football should consider eliminating heading, dementia expert says
Football needs to come with a health warning and should consider eliminating heading, the leading researcher into dementia in the sport Dr Willie Stewart has said

Paul MacInnes

02, Aug, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
Landmark study reveals link between football and dementia
Former professional footballers are three and a half times more likely to die of dementia than the general population, a landmark study has found

Sean Ingle

21, Oct, 2019 @11:05 PM

Article image
Football grapples slowly with brain injury, 19 years on from Jeff Astle | Andy Bull
The inquiry into concussion feels woefully small and underresourced given what we now know about the dangers

Andy Bull

11, Mar, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
Football still 'in the dark' about long-term risk of heading ball, says Southgate
Gareth Southgate believes football remains “in the dark” about the long-term risks of heading the ball and concussions sustained on the pitch

Louise Taylor

05, Jan, 2021 @10:56 AM

Article image
Gordon Taylor denies PFA ‘asleep at the wheel’ over football and concussion
Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the players’ union, has denied being ‘asleep at the wheel’ over the link between heading footballs, concussion and dementia

Sean Ingle

27, Apr, 2021 @12:33 PM

Article image
Football 'doesn’t want to think it can be a killer', Dawn Astle tells MPs
Campaigners for action against neuro-degenerative disease in football have delivered excoriating testimony against the game’s authorities to a parliamentary committee

Paul MacInnes

23, Mar, 2021 @3:20 PM

Article image
Rugby league players planning dementia case face battle, lawyer warns
Richard Cramer said there was ‘no clearcut favourite’ and significant payouts to former players ‘could be the final straw’ financially for the sport

Aaron Bower

22, Dec, 2020 @4:43 PM

Article image
Football without headers is unthinkable – or is it? | Adrian Chiles
Like rugby, football is exposing players to the risk of dementia. Isn’t it time we at least tried to play without this risky skill, asks Adrian Chiles

Adrian Chiles

09, Dec, 2020 @6:12 PM

Article image
Modern footballers could be at greater risk from head injury, says academic
The Field study was commissioned by the FA and the PFA and the findings suggest modern players not at any less risk than their predecessors

Paul MacInnes

21, Jul, 2020 @11:05 PM

Article image
Pitchside saliva tests could be used to diagnose concussion
Concussion in sport could be diagnosed at pitchside through saliva tests after a study hailed as a ‘gamechanger’ by researchers

Michael Aylwin

23, Mar, 2021 @10:30 PM