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Exclusive Interview: Sir Geoff Hurst Speaks Out On The Issue Of Dementia In Football Players

We sit down with England’s 1966 World Cup final hat-trick hero, Sir Geoff Hurst, to discuss the issue of dementia in football players, and what can be done to help prevent this problem moving forward.

Key Highlights:

  • Two key points need to be addressed, the amount of heading practice undertaken at clubs, and whether kids should begin heading the ball properly at such a young age:

    “In my position at West Ham, we had a ball in the gym hanging from the ceiling where you’d spend half an hour heading a ball constantly. Then you go on the pitch, and we used to obviously work very hard at near-post crosses. You could spend 20 minutes, half hour on that.

    So that’s got to be looked at in terms of the amount of practice. And secondly, whether you should look at stopping younger kids now, when they’re just 10 years of age, not heading the ball particularly.”

  • Hurst believes that although you can’t stop heading in games, it could be significantly reduced in practice:

    “You can’t argue that headings should be taken out, but you can argue quite strongly that when senior players practice at clubs, they can do a lot of practice without getting in position in the crossing, and practicing how they’re going to approach things without constantly knocking the ball in and heading the ball.

    You can still achieve the objective of where you want to be for a corner or a free kick. That can be done positionally without the huge amount of heading. So that’s certainly got to be looked at.”

  • Quoting a study by Dr Willie Stewart:

    “Willie Stewart analysed that football players are 3.5 times more likely to develop dementia than the general public and so on. So there’s lot more work to be done, but what is important and the point you’ve raised, is that the focus is now on this topic, and very, very, very closely.”

  • Speaking about his own experience with dementia and his teammates:

    “I’m involved with Alzheimer’s because it’s a personal issue for me with my teammates. Sadly, many of them are no longer with us because of dementia. And more recently of course, Sir Bobby Charlton and his wife Norma, coming out and stating that he is suffering with dementia.

    And it really is, in terms of an illness and a condition, it’s up there with probably the worst. Not even necessarily just for the person but also for the impact it has on the family.”

Full Transcript:

I wanted to ask you about something else, which is a quite serious subject, about the effect of dementia in the game, and a number of players who have been impacted by it. Why do you think it’s taken such a long time for the rest of the game to catch up and talk about it in this serious way?

Yes, it’s a difficult thing to answer really. It has been going on for some time. But it’s been a gradual process, more and more high-profile people are gradually coming out. It started, of course, with Geoff Haswell and his daughter, Dawn, some time ago who fully believed and was examined to say that it is an issue.

It’s difficult to answer why, but it certainly is overdue for it to be discussed. And it’s a very difficult subject to analyse because medically, they’re still saying that there needs to be more medical research involved with Alzheimer’s, even as we speak.

But the profile is important because it needs to be addressed. It needs to be addressed on two points. One, whether the amount of practice at clubs, and I’m talking about my position at West Ham, we had a ball in the gym hanging from the ceiling where you’d spend half an hour heading a ball constantly. Then you go on the pitch, and we used to obviously work very hard at near-post crosses. You could spend 20 minutes, half hour on that.

So that’s got to be looked at in terms of the amount of practice, particularly with the balls being much heavier in those days. Alan Shearer’s documentary analysed that when it was wet, our ball was much heavier than the current ball.

And secondly, whether you should look at stopping younger kids now, when they’re just 10 years of age, not heading the ball particularly.

You can’t argue that headings should be taken out, but you can argue quite strongly that when senior players practice at clubs, they can do a lot of practice without getting in position in the crossing, and practicing how they’re going to approach things without necessarily constantly knocking the ball in and heading the ball.

You can set up positions, maybe have two or three where you knock the ball in, but as long as you set up positionally, that’s where we’re going to be on the Saturday. That can be reduced. Certainly, the practice that we had constantly, for example we played head tennis at the gym, that was one of our practices.

So we’d head a ball in the gym, then we’d practice with five a side, so we did a lot of heading. A lot of it not to the detriment, again, could be stopped and reduced quite considerably. Somebody’s talked about having a day of rest during the week where you don’t practice heading, one or two days. Agreed, that would also reduce the impact.

And you can’t stop the heading in the game, but I think you wouldn’t affect the game by restricting stuff, and you still went through the practices without finally heading the ball 30 or 40 times. You can still achieve the objective of where you want to be for a corner or a free kick. That can be done positionally without the huge amount of heading. So that’s certainly got to be looked at.

Because I guess when you’re training as well, you’re not going in 100% of the tackles. You’re not going in 100% on some of the other moves. So you can also reduce the heading element as you mentioned.

Good point. Good point. Yes, you don’t necessarily when you have a five a side try to kick the lumps out of everybody. Absolutely, so that can be done without any detriment on the game at all. It is such a complex and complicated subject because the issue with people like Nobby (Stiles), and what they call CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy), they analysed people’s brains saying that if you head the ball regularly, there is this condition called CTE.

There are other forms of dementia, and vascular dementia, and I’m not an expert so I’m not going to roll on too much about this. But there was Willie Stewart, the guy in Scotland, who analysed that football players are 3.5 times more likely to develop dementia than the general public and so on. So there’s lot more work to be done, but what is important and the point you’ve raised, is that the focus is now on and very, very, very closely.

I’m involved with Alzheimer’s because it’s a personal issue for me with my teammates. Sadly, many of them are no longer with us because of dementia. And more recently, of course, Sir Bobby Charlton. His wife, Norma, coming out and stating that he is suffering with dementia. And it really is, in terms of an illness and a condition, it’s up there with probably the worst. Not even necessarily just for the person but also for the impact it has on the family.

And I’ve gone through that with Martin and his wife Kathy who, as she has done for 60 years, she speaks to my wife every day. So, although there’s nobody in my immediate family, we’ve lived as close to a family and people living with somebody with that condition than as many other people. It’s awful. But the focus is on it now, and that’s good. That’s very good.

If you’d like to hear more of Sir Geoff Hurst’s thoughts on the current state of football in the UK, you can find more exclusive interviews discussing topics such as England’s chances at the EURO 2020 tournament, West Ham’s recent success and the impact of technology in football.

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