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Mandy Moore still winces as she recalls how it often was for her late husband, Kevin, after so many of his 623 matches as a professional footballer. “He had stitches and scars around his eyes,” she recalls. “There were times when he could not even remember parts of a match after taking a kick or an elbow in the head.”
His friend and former team-mate Iain Dowie says that they would stay behind to practise heading. “Maybe 100 balls a day,” says Dowie.
And then there were the shuddering match incidents. “I don’t know how many times Kev – God bless him – got concussed,” says Dowie. “But I remember an incident as the ball dropped in the box. Kev slipped and the lad was about to smash it in. Kev put his head between the ball and him. The lad kicked his head and [the ball] went for a corner.”
Moore was 39 when he retired in 1996 after a 20-year career. This was not an elderly player struck down with a devastating form of dementia, but a defender from the Premier League era who had been a Southampton team-mate of Alan Shearer and Matthew Le Tissier.
He is the first known Premier League player to have died of dementia and was only in his mid-40s when his family noticed changes.
He unexpectedly lost his job as Fulham’s safety officer and training ground manager. He became forgetful, unsteady on his feet and had minor car accidents. He started making rash decisions.
A diagnosis of Pick’s Disease – a rare form of dementia affecting the front of the brain – was made in 2007 and his decline would be cruelly rapid.
For his daughter, Sophie, a gap of 10 months between visits when she was living in Australia was startling. “I was left shocked,” she says. “I felt like I didn’t recognise him as my dad.”
Moore eventually needed full-time care and died in April 2013 on what was both his wedding anniversary and 55th birthday.
“My abiding memory was him scoring at Wembley in the Zenith Data Systems final in 1992,” says Le Tissier. “It was the only time I’ve seen a guy head the ball downwards into the top corner.”
Although former England striker Jeff Astle died in 2002 from brain disease that both a coroner and neuropathologist attributed to playing football, the link was not then being widely made.
There was a sad irony in that Moore had been sufficiently concerned while he was still playing to have discussed it with Dowie and a doctor. They raised the issue with Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association.
Mandy Moore also wrote to Taylor following Kevin’s diagnosis and received a reply. There were no words of sympathy and, even though she says there had been no request to cover care costs, the letter stated that the organisation would be bankrupt within a year if it paid care home fees for members. Taylor estimated in the letter, written in 2008, that 1,000 of his members required such care and that the annual bill would be about £15 million.
The Moore family were taken aback by the letter’s tone and, while grateful for the wider help Kevin received from the PFA, felt a huge difference in how they were supported by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, where Moore was also a member.
Dementia caused by head trauma has since been identified as chronic traumatic encephalopathy and, while definitive diagnosis can be made only by examining the brain after death, Moore’s symptoms were consistent with the disease. “This is not about banning football or heading but getting research done so that players know where they stand and risks are mitigated,” says Mandy.
Dowie agrees. “I feel sure football did play a part – there is no doubt in my mind,” he says.
You are probably aware of ongoing discussions regarding head injuries in soccer (it’s much much worse for (American) football, of course, but it’s an issue for soccer too).
Full-blown concussions typically take center-stage, but medical professionals are now also worried about the many smaller sub-concussive blows to the head.
And there is increasing evidence that even just rapid head movements can cause long-term damage.
In response, U.S. Soccer recently introduced a powerful educational concussion video and the no-heading rule for players up to and including twelve years of age.
This caused some frustration, including concerns about our youngsters not being able to head the ball well when they are older.
Some also felt that this was an overreaction and that heading the ball safely (with the front of the head instead of the top or sides) can be taught from a young age.
The risks associated with heading balls is not yet properly understood. Scientists and medical professionals are working to understand this much better, but it will take some time.
In the meantime, I would like to share the experiences of a family friend with you.
Chris Nicholl was a professional soccer player and manager in the English Premier League. He played as a central defender for Aston Villa (1972–1977) (210 league appearances) and then Southampton (1977-1983) (228 league appearances).
Chris also played internationally for Northern Ireland (51 caps). After he retired from his playing career, Chris managed Southampton amongst other clubs.
I’ve added a vintage clip at the end of this article showing Chris’ most famous goal, scored during the League Cup Final against Everton.
But arguably his most memorable feat was scoring all four goals in a 2:2 draw between Aston Villa and Leicester City. 😁
Chris was interviewed by the Daily Mail a couple of weeks ago and I’m pasting a key passage below. Click here for the full article.
“I know I’m brain damaged from heading footballs. I used to head 100 balls almost every day. When I was at Aston Villa I would watch all my team-mates going home in their cars and I would still be there on the training pitch with Ray Grayden who used to send them long. It’s definitely affected my memory. The balls were a lot heavier then.” Nicholl points to his nose which is unnaturally curved and crooked. “Maybe you can tell, I used to head more with my nose,” he adds. “It’s not recommended.”
To be clear, Chris’ example doesn’t prove that heading the ball causes brain damage nor how many headers per day/week/month are safe. His memory loss might simply be age related (he is 70).
However, the medical research community in England and now also the English FA is looking into pre-mature deaths and behavioral changes of former players.
Early evidence is showing that some died of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the same condition as American football players.
And three members of England’s 1966 World Cup winning squad suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, believed to be caused by heading.
According to one health advocate in England, 75% to 80% of the players that contact her are centre-halves and centre-forwards.
“Obviously not all of them are, but the vast majority are. Although any player on the pitch can head the ball, centre halves and strikers head the ball more, especially in those days.”
Researchers at the University of Stirling, UK, found heading the ball just 20 times could make “small but significant changes in brain function” for the next 24 hours, when memory performance was reduced between 41 and 67 per cent.
I hope this serves as a cautionary tale.
Unfortunately, as a referee I still see too many coaches who ignore or down-play players’ head injuries during games and practices.
Let’s err on the side of caution for our youngsters, folks. The brain is precious and damage to it often doesn’t become apparent until later in life.
That damage is irreversible and fundamentally changes who you are as a person well before your pre-mature death.
Probably one of the two most contentious issues during soccer games are offside decisions (the other is ‘handball’). This comes up during pretty much every game – coaches and parents protesting ‘obvious’ bad offside calls by the referees.
I’m not going to get into the technicalities of precisely what offside is here, but if you want further background please click here for a blog post that includes a discussion of offside and why it’s so very difficult to determine unless you are the AR in the right position. Even the CR can’t make that decision unless it’s blatantly obvious.
Instead, let’s take a look at a very difficult offside decision during a very recent EPL Liverpool game.
First, what does this screen shot tell you? White #8 is clearly offside, correct? He’s closer to the goal than the red defenders when his teammate heads the ball towards him.
Next, let’s rotate our field of view. What does this next screen shot show?
It clearly shows White #8 NOT in an offside position because he is level with Red #11 the moment his teammate heads the ball towards him.
Quite amazing the difference the angle of view makes, right?
However, the play isn’t over yet. Let’s take a look at the next screen shot.
The white player at the top headed the ball towards White #8, but it lands short in front of the white player barely visible in front of Red #6. Both that white player and Red #6 stretch their left leg to reach the ball.
The moment the white player’s leg touches the ball is another potential offside infraction by White #8. However, White #8 is again NOT in an offside position because the red player’s outstretched left leg (or more precisely his left foot) is closer to the goal than any body part of White #8 (please note that hands and arms don’t count for offside decisions).
The ball then landed in front of White #8 who scored. The referees rightfully awarded the goal.
Now imagine all this unfolding in realtime and you’re one of the referees. This is very difficult to get right unless you are highly trained and have the experience to apply the laws of the game in realtime as the action unfolds.
Please consider giving the referees the benefit of doubt during your youth games. Referees do make mistakes, of course, and they are the first to admit it, but please keep in mind that coaches and parents simply aren’t close enough to the action, nor have the right angle of view, nor fully understand the offside law and how to apply it.
For the good of the game and your kid’s enjoyment please think twice before reacting to an ‘obvious’ offside ‘mistake’.
These last eighteen months have seen considerable changes in our Bay Area youth soccer landscape. Clubs have merged, affiliated, and franchised. This post is an attempt to summarize at least some of that activity. There are more changes to come no doubt.
San Jose Earthquakes Youth Expansion
Expanded their teams all the way down to U5. The Earthquakes Player Development system now consist of five levels:
- Earthquakes professional team (Major League Soccer)
- Earthquakes Under-23 team (Premier Development League)
- Earthquakes Academy teams (U14, U16, U18 – USSDA)
- Earthquakes Pre-Academy teams (U9-U16)
- Earthquakes Elite Player Development teams – recreational teams for ages 4-11.
In addition, the Quakes expanded their affiliates program to the following clubs: East Valley FC Turlock, West Coast FC Livermore, Ethos FC Sacramento, San Mateo County Star, San Francisco Elite, San Jose FC (aka Central Valley YSL), Diablo FC East Bay.
This affiliate program appears to be primarily a player identification system. Locations of clubs are chosen to achieve a good geographic coverage across the region, which includes Sacramento.
My understanding is that there are still some growing pains for the younger age groups, but it is likely that the Earthquakes will clean this up over time.
De Anza Force merges with Barcelona Bay Area
Barcelona Bay Area created strong boys and girls teams these last four years or so by focusing on the South San Jose to Gilroy area. This club’s growth was rapid and came with considerable success.
With the changes in our Bay Area soccer club landscape, including the expansion of the Earthquakes academy to the youngest age groups, it makes sense for these two strong clubs to merge to provide more opportunities for youngsters in a stronger combined entity.
This combined entity should have stronger teams than each can field alone because the catchment area is now larger and more financial resources to invest in the continued growth of the combined club. Access to scarce quality practice and game fields should also now be better for the combined entity.
In addition to the combined teams there will also be a new Force South to continue to offer quality programs in the southern parts of San Jose to Gilroy.
The top youngsters at Barcelona Bay Area also now have seamless access to both the elite Development Academy (for boys) and EGSL/ECNL (for girls). Force is the only club that has both accreditations. And having a consistent player development curriculum for all players in this combined entity will help young players be better prepared to compete for those elite slots when they get to U12.
Note that in late 2014 Gryphons Soccer Club in San Mateo County merged with De Anza Force to become ‘Force North’.
PSA Royals is now Liverpool FC Bay Area
PSA Royals is now the official Northern California partner club of Liverpool Football Club in England, with full rebranding, including official use of the Liverpool jerseys and the transfer of Liverpool’s player development curriculum.
LFC Bay Area also have a relationship with the Earthquakes, but not all the way to affiliate status. I suspect that this won’t work too well – you probably can’t have Liverpool and Earthquakes branding at the same time.
Almaden FC is now a FC Bayern Munich affiliate
AFC is now an extension of the German FC Bayern Munich academy in North America. However, my understanding is that AFC is not allowed to re-brand. Liverpool allowed PSA Royals to re-brand, but it appears that Bayern Munich doesn’t allow that for their affiliates.
AFC will now have access to the FC Bayern player development curriculum and will benefit from interactions with the Youth Academy Staff of FC Bayern.
El Cerrito FC is now Tottenham Hotspur East Bay
English Premier League team Tottenham took over El Cerrito Futbol Club at the beginning of this year. They fully re-branded, including wearing the official Tottenham jerseys.
There’s a rumor that ACC Mavericks might merge with Tottenham Hotspur East Bay at some point, but there appear to be tensions/disagreements how this would be implemented.
Sporting Santa Clara is now a West Ham International Academy club
English Premier League team West Ham has been very active with their entry into the U.S. youth scene. My understanding is that West Ham’s affiliate program does not include rebranding of Sporting though.
The benefits of affiliating with these top international clubs for our local youth clubs is access to player development curricula, behind the scenes coaching education, and, probably most of all, a boost in credibility to help attract talent.
My understanding is that a typical annual license fee a local youth club has to pay the international club is around $15K. But that is based on one data point only – I don’t know how many clubs have to pay a license fee and how much.
The international clubs benefit from better talent scouting (nothing beats having an actual on-the-ground presence) and increased brand awareness.
And the earlier they can develop talent here ‘the right way’ (in their view) through their own coaching approach and their player development curriculum the more likely it is that top talent can be useful once they move to the international club’s home academy in Europe.
It’s going to be interesting to see which other European (and Mexican?) clubs enter the Bay Area in the near future. Lots of big clubs from England, Germany, Italy, and Spain are still not active here.
And probably the biggest local target is now the merged De Anza Force/Barcelona Bay Area entity.
International professional clubs have been very active recently here in the U.S. An increasing number of them are setting up official affiliations with youth soccer clubs across the country to identify talent as early as possible and then develop them in the right way, including at their home academies in Europe.
Here’s a very interesting ‘must-read’ article on this topic just published by the LA Times: Other Countries Are Scouting Young U.S. Soccer Talent.
Quoting from this article to set the scene:
When Brad Friedel was growing up in suburban Cleveland a generation ago, youth soccer was more an afterthought than an organized activity. “There was nothing there,” he remembers.
So he was a bit surprised when he moved back to the U.S. after spending most of the last 20 years playing in the English Premier League.
“The entire landscape and scope of what soccer is today doesn’t compare, doesn’t even look remotely similar, to the landscape that I left,” he said.
I will post an article in a day or two specifically about what this trend looks like in the Bay Area, but here’s a brief clip from the Wall Street Journal summarizing the motivations nicely.
They happen to interview the youth academy folks from famous English Premier League team West Ham, but there are many more clubs doing the same now here. West Ham now has dozens of affiliates across the country – check out their website here for a full list.
The following quotes about Manchester United’s current style of play are very relevant to youth player development and coaching:
“There’s a lack of creativity and risk. It seems Van Gaal doesn’t want players to beat men and it’s probably not a team I’d have enjoyed playing in. The hardest thing to coach is scoring goals and creativity.“
-Paul Scholes, played his entire professional career for Manchester United and is the most decorated English footballer of all time, having won a total of 25 trophies, featuring 11 Premier League titles and two Champions League titles.
“Manchester United are suffering from a lack of freedom. You see players where the ball could have been played forward with a little bit of risk but they tend to go square or back.
When Sir Alex Ferguson was at the helm there was a clear style and identity but we also gave them the freedom to come up with their own solutions. There’s a lack of freedom now.”
-Rene Meulensteen, first-team coach under Sir Alex Ferguson.
I can strongly recommend FoxSoccer2Go. It’s about $20 per month but I get to watch games from all the major national leagues and tournaments, including the UEFA Champions League. It streams nicely on my laptop, tablet, and smartphone.