Former England striker issues plea for simple measures to protect footballers from head injuries

Former England football striker Chris Sutton has claimed that “simple measures” including temporary concussion substitutes and a limit on heading in training would “protect generations to come”.

Under new rules, permanent substitutions can be made if a player suffers a head injury, but Sutton believes temporary substitutes would give doctors more time to assess the player.

“Permanent ones are not in the player’s best interests,” said Sutton.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast the 48-year-old said: “I’ve seen numerous incidents this season where players have a head injury and they are not taken off the pitch.

“To look after a player correctly, surely the most sensible thing is to take your time, get him off the pitch and have an independent doctor look at him in the sanctuary of the dressing room?

“There are preventative measures we can put in place which are certainly going to help the modern player and generations to come.”

Alan Shearer called for similar measures to be introduced after two Sheffield United players suffered blows to the head on Sunday.

The Premier League introduced a trial of additional permanent concussion substitutions in February, giving teams two per game.

According to the league’s concussion protocol, the team doctor has “as much time as is required to make an on-pitch clinical assessment”.

The Football Association, which introduced head injury substitutes into the FA Cup in February, has echoed experts from world governing body Fifa, who say permanent head injury replacements are safer because concussions can often be delayed.

Sutton’s pleas comes as Football authorities, clubs and their insurers have been warned 2021 looks set to be a watershed in the issue of neurodegenerative illnesses.

In an article authored by David Tait and Toby Scott at law firm Clyde & Co  football authorities have been told they cannot ignore the legal action that is underway in the USA over head injuries suffered by National Football League players.

“The coming year will prove to be the watershed moment in respect of football players and their risk of dementia and other neurodegenerative illnesses caused by heading the ball,” they wrote.  “The prospect of litigation, financial and reputational damage will pique the interest of the football authorities, and in the highest echelons of football governance, money talks.”

The article warned actions such as the announcement by the Professional Footballers’ Association of the creation of an advisory group “to refine its support provisions for former players with neurodegenerative conditions” are likely to be increasingly perceived as sticking plasters on this issue.

“Whilst the authorities have largely been content to highlight the existing scientific position, it is now clear that this response is no longer adequate,” it added. “The high-profile cases of Sir Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles have added to the lists of ex-professionals diagnosed with dementia. For those following this area of research, this is perhaps unsurprising, and neither is the reported formation of a group action involving multiple ex-professionals against football authorities, and we predict that further actions are likely to be brought.”

They acknowledged rugby is “certainly ahead of football” in terms of seeking to protect players.  Rugby brought in rules surrounding concussions are more advanced and Head Injury Assessments during games were introduced in 2012.

“It is now clear that rugby is also ahead in terms of legal action.  There has been widespread reporting in December 2020 that a group of perhaps up to 70 former rugby players are preparing a group litigation action in respect of the effects that concussion/head injuries has had on them following their playing careers.”

At present prospects of such actions being successful are as yet unclear.