Gareth Southgate believes football remains “in the dark” about the long-term risks of heading the ball and concussions sustained on the pitch.
Many former players have dementia or have died from the disease and the England manager, a former centre-half, has led calls for increased research regarding the game’s risks.
Although football’s medical protocols surrounding head injuries have been tightened appreciably in recent years, Southgate accepts there is no room for complacency. “We’re still in a position where we need more research to find out exactly the impact of concussion, of heading the ball, we’re still in the dark on a lot of those things,” he said.
In an attempt to help cast increased light on the subject the 50-year-old is joining forces with Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Kenny Dalglish for a fundraising “Lockdown Theatre” evening on Friday 15 January. The trio will be streamed online from their homes with fans invited to join them in an anecdote-rich question and answer session in support of the Alzheimer’s Society’s Sport United Against Dementia initiative.
“Everybody is really more aware than ever of the impact of the illness,” Southgate said. “Anybody that’s had family who have suffered know what a horrendous illness it is. So it’s a very serious situation and we want to try to support as much research as we can so that people who are playing now and in the future are as well protected as they can be.”
England’s manager is relieved to see the risks at least being taken significantly more seriously than during the days when he appeared on the pitch for his country. “The medical requirements now are way beyond [those in place] 15 years ago,” said Southgate, who swapped Middlesbrough’s defence for the manager’s office at the Riverside in 2006. “As a coach, you really have to adhere to your medical team. Protocols are much more severe than when I was playing, there were games where I had concussion and played on.
“We weren’t as aware – we just carried on, we didn’t think about it so much. That’s changed, definitely for the better. Medical care is more advanced. I think we are in a better place, but, always, we’ve got to review what we do and like all medical situations, we’re learning all the time.”
In the short term, Southgate must wait to learn what form this summer’s delayed European Championship will take but retains reason for optimism. “We’re looking forward to the summer, it’s a brilliant challenge, but a lot of uncertainty on exactly what the tournament might look like,” he said. “Will we have fans back in by then?”
Given current lockdown restrictions and the scale of the pandemic, scouting ranks among the myriad of tournament preparations that are no longer routine. “Like every business we’re having to be adaptable and we’re having to be sensible on how we operate in terms of meetings and attending clubs,” said England’s manager. “It isn’t so easy at the moment, but we’re very excited about the year ahead.
“And of course, with a team that are improving all the time, with lots of young players emerging, we’re, we’re very excited about the depth of young talent coming through.”