Heading in football: has Scotland banned heading the day before and after matches, what are new SFA rules?

Scotland were the first country in the world to have a single set of concussion guidelines for all sports

New guidelines in Scotland have seen professional footballers banned from heading the ball in training the day before and the day after a match. Clubs have been told to limit exercises that involve repetitive heading to only one session per week.

The new rule comes after research from Glasgow University that showed that former footballers are three-and-a-half times more likely to die from a brain disease, with experts claiming it is likely to be related to repetitive heading of the ball.

The decision follows a previous ban on headers in training for under-12 football and will be introduced after the Scottish Football Association (SFA) consulted with the 50 clubs across the professional men’s and women’s game in Scotland and follows an SFA survey of clubs with a focus on heading trends.

What does the research show?

The study completed by the University of Glasgow three years ago compared the causes of death in a population of over 7,600 professional football players with those of 23,000 individuals from the general population. It showed that they had a three-and-a-half times higher risk of death from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimers, Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease - as well as a five times greater risk of death from Alzheimer’s disease.

There has also been research to show that head injuries is linked to dementia. In 2020, a report was published showed an increased risk of dementia over a period of 10 years after their head injury in people over the age of 50 that had experienced head injuries.

As well as former Liverpool defender Stephen Darby, ex-rugby stars Rob Burrow and Doddie Weir were diagnosed with MND since ending their professional careers. The latter passed away with the disease on November 26 - over five years since announcing he had MND.

What has been said?

The SFA doctor, Dr John MacLean, was part of the 2019 study that highlighted the link between dementia and former footballers. He said: “While the research continues to develop, what we already know about heading and its effects on the brain suggests that there is measurable memory impairment lasting 24-48 hours following a series of headers, and that brain-related proteins can be detected in blood samples for a short time after heading.

“Brain scan changes have also been reported in footballers that may be linked to heading. Therefore, the goal is to reduce any potential cumulative effect of heading by reducing the overall exposure to heading in training.

“We’ve taken our time with this because we wanted to really engage with stakeholders across football. Then there was the engagement process with players, through PFA Scotland but also with the clubs, the managers and coaches through the Scottish FA. It was all about collective responsibility and safeguarding player health and well-being.”

Hibs women’s defender Joelle Murray has spoken about on the heading ban and has showed her support for the decision, however she believes it will be tough to implement as most teams work on set pieces the day before a match. ““We certainly can’t avoid the findings and the research, but we will need to restructure our training week,” she said.

“You don’t want players to get out of that natural habit, that natural instinct of heading the ball. You wouldn’t want that to impact those scenarios on a match day so it’s trying to find the right balance. There have been so many former players who are now unfortunately suffering dementia because of what we think has been an excessive amount of heading during their playing career.”

“During training I probably do think about it more. The girls will laugh because I maybe duck out of a cross or a ball into the box but certainly come match day it certainly doesn’t enter my mind. You naturally just head the ball to clear it.“If you don’t train that way then maybe on match day you’ll see more play being on the ground opposed to in the air so it might have a positive impact both ways.”