The Football Association is “leading the way” in researching the dementia risk to players, according to its chief executive Mark Bullingham.
Lawyers have confirmed that an action has begun on behalf of former players suffering with the neurodegenerative disease, who plan to seek compensation from organisations understood to include the FA.
Both it and the Professional Footballers’ Association have again this week been accused of not doing enough to support ex-players or acting to protect players by introducing greater restrictions on heading in training.
Bullingham says although the FIELD study, which the FA and PFA co-funded, established an increased risk for players of dying from neurodegenerative disease, he says it is “not entirely clear cut” what causes that increased risk.
“Dementia is a horrendous illness,” he said.
“My mother suffers from it. I see it first hand. It’s horrible. In terms of where I feel we are as an organisation, I feel like we’ve led the way with the FIELD research and we’re funding a number of other projects at the moment.
“I don’t think it’s entirely clear cut to identify the risk factors. But obviously heading could be one of those risk factors and that’s why we put in place all the guidelines we have with regards to youth football, which I think are actually tougher than any other country in the world.
“Whilst it is a global problem, I do feel like we’re leading the way and helping to determine what the cause of that issue could be.”
The issue has been brought back into focus following the death last month of Nobby Stiles, who had been living with dementia for many years, and the news that his Manchester United and England team-mate Sir Bobby Charlton has also been diagnosed with it.
Former England striker Gary Lineker has been among a group of ex-professionals who have suggested a need to reduce or ban heading in training even at the top level.
Newcastle manager Steve Bruce believes the issue must be looked at in closer detail.
“When you say a great World Cup team with five of them (having been diagnosed with dementia), and the great Burnley team of the 60s with six of those too, and if there is a link I think we’ve got to find it quickly and find a solution,” he said on Friday.
“I think we and the PFA in particular must look into it, we must try and see if there is a risk and if the evidence is pointing towards it we’ve got the ability to do something about it.
“It was mooted that you take away heading of the ball from young kids. I’m all for making sure that we do all the research that we can possibly do, and if there is a link, do something about it.
“I look back on my career, every day when I was young we headed the ball hour after hour. So there is a genuine concern when you do see great players from the era just before me, why shouldn’t it affect my era?”
The chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society, Kate Lee, said there is an “urgent” need for answers on this topic, adding: “We want to see much more research into the links between dementia and football, but this will take time, and needs funding, particularly when all charities, like ourselves, have been badly hit financially by the pandemic.
“Until then, the Alzheimer’s Society is really excited to launch Sport United Against Dementia, seeking to spearhead change by making sure that the very best support is available to all sportspeople.
“As the leading dementia charity, we hope that the industry will embrace the team spirit that has helped win cups, trophies and medals and come out in force to unite against dementia.”