Heading in Football: A Dying Art?

    Sport, Football, Legendary Everton striker Dixie Dean enters the pitch holding the ball under his arm, circa 1933 (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

    Heading in football has come under scrutiny recently after it was found to have links to dementia. Players of the past would not have known of such health risks. For example, Dixie Dean was renowned as a great header of a football. His famed ability was such that the power of his headers were considered as powerful as many players shots. 

    Dean once scored 60 league goals in a season for Everton, many using his head and over subsequent decades, most teams have featured a number nine who had to have aerial expertise.

    Across Stanley Park, Bill Shankly’s emerging Liverpool team included the spring-heeled Ian St John up front and the ‘colossus’ Ron Yeats at centre-half. Later, the little and large combination of Kevin Keegan and John Toshack would terrorise defences.

    From other teams, names such as Ron Davies, Wyn Davies, Jeff Astle and Tony Hateley became famed exponents.

    Heading: A Dying Art

    Wingless Wonders

    These centre-forwards needed service; this came from the wingers. They were either speedy or tricky wide men who produced the crosses from which the number nine headed the goals, usually at the far post.

    Now a virtually extinct species, the traditional wingers’ days became numbered when Alf Ramsey famously dispensed with Connelly, Paine and Callaghan and then went on to win the 1966 World Cup for England. Now, no winger would ever match the 33-year career of the ‘Wizard of the Dribble’, Stanley Matthews. In modern times what was once dubbed ‘European football’, epitomised by Barcelona, has transformed the game even further away from long high balls.

    The End of Heading?

    Heading seems now to be a lost art. Few forwards can match the abilities of those bygone stars. Exceptions might include Tim Cahill, Andy Carroll and, though he has an obvious advantage, Peter Crouch.

    Mix in the spectre of possible brain damage and this exhilarating part of the game is indeed dying out. The recent documentary fronted by Alan Shearer, another very able header of the ball, investigated the damage repetitive heading might cause. Though any direct links to dementia still need more investigation, it served to highlight the possible dangers.

    Whether those sufferers mentioned in the film would trade their past glories for a longer but much more mundane life is, of course, another matter.

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