I CAN honestly say that in 14 years as a professional footballer, I have never discussed the threat of dementia with another player.
Nor have I ever heard others discussing it.
You may think that sounds blase but I don’t think so.
We understand the link between heading a football and possible brain disease in later life but we also understand that there are elements of risk in most elite sports and we are willing to accept that.
I have huge respect for those campaigning to help former players who are suffering from dementia and battling for increased support.
There should be more than enough money to help them properly.
And when you hear that Sir Bobby Charlton, like so many of England’s 1966 World Cup winners, has been diagnosed with dementia, of course you stop and think.
But I hope and believe that modern footballs are safer to head than the old-school balls that those players who are suffering used to head.
And it concerns me, with the way this debate is going, that we may see heading being banned from football in the long run.
And that would change the nature of the sport beyond recognition.
Heading is an integral part of the game, or at least it should be.
Ban heading and football would become a glorified game of five-a-side with anything over head-height or shoulder-height banned.
I don’t believe any lover of football wants that.
Heading is already becoming something of a lost art. For so many teams, it is all about passing on the deck and producing the ball for a team-mate to score.
You only have to see the level of surprise when someone like Dominic Calvert-Lewin emerges as a great header to realise how rare those sort of players are becoming.
The Everton striker has a brilliant leap and great technique.
I love to watch him but the way everyone goes ‘wow!’ when he scores one of those towering headers shows you how this skill is being lost.
Calvert-Lewin is excellent but he wouldn’t have had the same ‘wow’ factor even ten or 15 years ago when Didier Drogba and Alan Shearer were banging them in.
Maybe I’m biased because heading has always been a big part of my game but I do believe supporters appreciate a striker, or a centre-half, who is commanding in the air.
People worry about repeated heading but even for a player like me, I am not heading a whole load of footballs in the course of an average week.
We might do crossing and finishing drills and set-piece work a couple of times a week but we are not suffering a significant number of blows to the head like a boxer.
I’m happy with heading having been banned for Under-12s but at professional level it is a skill you need to practice – the timing, the way you twist your neck, getting the right contact.
You can’t just rock up on a Saturday having not practiced heading all week.
If they try to ban, or limit it, in training, do you honestly think a club like Burnley, who are quite direct and excellent from set-pieces, would stick to that? How would it be policed?
As I said, I am not being totally ignorant about the threat.
And I do believe that concussion protocols in football are enforced.
I failed a concussion test after a match once.
They will say five simple words to you – something like ‘apple, orange, red, blue, green’ – and you have to repeat them back in the reverse order.
They test you before pre-season and if you can repeat four words back, for example, then that’s your baseline figure you have to meet if you get a knock to the head.
After one match I was feeling a little groggy and unwell.
I don’t think it was from a particular blow to the head and I couldn’t complete that test, so I had to repeat it before the next training session, or I wouldn’t have been able to join in.
Some of my team-mates have had to rest for seven or ten days after suffering concussion and that seems like the correct protocol to me.
I do believe though that football has already lost too much physicality – certainly in the Premier League, if not the Championship.
Since Watford were relegated I’ve really noticed the difference.
In the Championship, you have to pull a knife on an opponent to get booked. In the Premier League you only have to breathe on someone.
It already concerns me that tackling is being lost to the sport, especially at elite level, and I don’t want to see heading going the same way.
WHEN West Brom welcome Sheffield United on Saturday night, it will be the first time two Premier League clubs have met as many as nine games into a season without either side having won a match.
But there is hope for both clubs.
At Watford last season we didn’t win in our first 11 games but we did get out of the bottom three – before being relegated in the final match of the season.
I watched West Brom at Manchester United last weekend and I thought the Baggies were excellent – only losing by virtue of VAR.
A performance as good as that, after a long run without a win, will give them genuine hope.
Although it also makes you wonder ‘when is the luck ever going to turn for us?’
As for the Blades, with just one point so far, well I really like the way their manager Chris Wilder is talking.
I heard him being asked whether he fears the sack and he replied he has never been axed in 20 years as a manager and he doesn’t intend to start now.
If I was one of his players, I’d love that sort of talk. If the manager believes in himself and believes in you as a squad, then that gives you belief.
This season isn’t a lost cause for either club, whatever the outcome at the Hawthorns tonight.
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