Cardiff City legend admits football’s dementia time bomb is ‘worrying’ but resists call for heading ban

Phil Dwyer heads clear in his Cardiff City playing days. Pic: WalesOnline

by Matt Slater

CARDIFF CITY legend Phil Dwyer has voiced his concerns about the escalating dementia problem in football, but does not believe a ban on heading the ball is the solution.

The former Wales centre-half still holds the record for Bluebirds appearances, turning out for his hometown club 471 times between 1972 and 1985.

The sight of Dwyer heading the ball clear of danger or meeting a towering kick from the opposition goalkeeper with a thud of his head is one that will be ingrained in the minds of many a Cardiff fan of a certain age.

No surprise then that Dwyer, now 67 and a retired legal representative, has watched a story that has dominated the sports agenda in recent weeks with growing concern. The recent death of Nobby Stiles, who suffered with dementia and the revelation that Sir Bobby Charlton also has the condition, has only served to bring the issue into its sharpest ever focus.

“It’s a bit worrying and it is certainly a very serious matter in the game at the moment,” said Dwyer.

“Nobby Stiles and Sir Bobby are a bit older than me, but I am seeing that former players affected by this are getting closer and closer to my age.

“It seems like it is every other week where you pick up the newspaper and someone else has dementia.

“Lately I have been shocked by it because I was heading the ball all the time. You sit down and wonder at times that it couldn’t have done much good.

“Of course, it does make you wonder. I feel for those who are affected now, with Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles being two really big names.

“It’s a real concern, but I suppose you can’t dwell on it every minute of the day – and I don’t. What will be, will be.”

In recent weeks, Premier League managers and footballing icons including Sir Geoff Hurst have called for heading to be banned for youth teams.

Chelsea manager Frank Lampard is the latest to join the debate, admitting he is considering limiting the amount of times players head the ball in training.

But Dwyer has his doubts over some of the suggested fixes.

“I don’t think it would make much difference if a rule came in to stop children heading the ball,” he said.

“The ball is a lot lighter nowadays.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t do much heading of the ball partly because the ball was so heavy, it was hard to kick it in the air.

“I know there are calls for something to be done and football can’t ignore this problem. But I am not sure what the solution is. It is difficult, heading is such a big part of the game and to outlaw it would change it massively.”

While the modern balls which do not hold water and become weighed down have gone some way to allaying fears, there remain grave concerns about a dementia time bomb with the link between the condition and heading having been ignored for so long.

A campaign by the family of former West Brom striker Jeff Astle, who died aged 59 in 2002, did much to highlight the need for football to recognise the risks.

Dwyer added: “When I was a player in my earlier years the balls were leather with the lace on it. It is different to the balls that are in play now.

“Yes, they were heavy, when you put your head as a centre-half on a kick that had come from the opposition goalkeeper you knew about it.

“It never bothered me at the time though, it was my job. When you played centre-half you knew heading it was a key part of your role. There was no avoiding it.

“It wouldn’t say it hurt me then – we just took it for granted. And during a match you never had time to think about it.

“Also, while the ball was heavier in my day, I guess it was even heavier in the decades before.”

While some ex-players have cited heading on a daily basis in training rather in games was the real problem, Dwyer says that was not his experience during his days at Ninian Park.

“There wasn’t a lot of heading in training, you might have one day, or one session where we would head the ball – but you were not going out for a 100% heading session,” he explained.

“I have seen the stories where players are saying it was more the amount of heading they did in training, but I would say that was not the case with me, personally.

“We would practise free-kicks and corners which would involve you having to go up for headers but we didn’t do sessions of non-stop heading or any more than was necessary really.”