The Art of Heading

Close your eyes and just picture the scene. You are in the away end sitting behind the goal cheering on your team with the scores tied at 1-1. There is a minute left on the clock and your team get a corner. They are attacking the goal right in front of you and it’s their last chance to snatch the three points. Along with the rest of the die-hard away fans around you, you give it one last roar as the linesman points his flag to signal for a corner, hoping to galvanize your team for one last push. The ball is delivered and it’s like slow motion as you watch it hang in mid-air waiting to be attacked and then above everyone your centre back rises and meets the ball perfectly with his forehead sending it like a bullet in to the net. 1-2. He wheels away, arms aloft, towards you and your fellow fans. Queue delirium.

Some types of goals just seem that bit more special. A mazy run beating four men before slotting past the keeper. A long range thunderbolt from 30 yards. A cheeky chip over a stranded keeper. We all have our own favourites and for me a thumping header can be a thing of beauty but sadly it is something we rarely see these days and I think it is because heading the ball is becoming a lost art. Recently in the United States they have placed a ban on children under the age of 10 heading the ball and certain restrictions on 11-13 years due to health concerns in later life. Oh dear where does this leave me as from the age of nine I used to practise heading every day with a mitre mouldmaster ball? For those of you that are too young to know what that particular ball was like just think netball/cannonball or as my Dad would say “A clubby”.

Regardless of these rule changes in the US designed to protect younger players from head injuries, heading the ball amongst young players has been non-existent for a while. Heading does not seem to be a skill that is practised or coached in youth academies up and down the UK any more. Many youth team games I have watched at differing age groups all seem to follow the same structure of slow build up play from the back with plenty of emphasis on passing. In some respects it is great that as a nation we are constantly trying to improve and get away from the kick and rush type game we may have seen 10 years ago with the goalkeeper trying to kick it as high and as far as he can every time he got it. Unfortunately I fear we may have moved too far the other away as the youth team games I watch are so far removed from what actual professional football is really like. Go to any football league game and count how many times the centre backs on each team head the ball. I know from experience it will be a lot and if it’s not the chances are their team will be shipping goals because if they are not heading it the opposing centre forward certainly will be.

Even the best teams in the world need people that can attack the ball in the air. Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the finest players to ever play the game and yet one of his biggest assets is being able to head the ball. Speak to anyone that had the pleasure to watch Pele and they will tell you his timing, spring and bravery made him a fantastic header of the ball some of his finest goals were headers. I am not sure if this aspect of the game is neglected because many coaches feel coaching heading makes them look old fashioned or because players don’t find it as exciting or as fashionable as dribbling or shooting but one thing I am sure of is that there are a dearth of young players coming through that can head the ball the way some previous generations could. I grew up watching players like Steve Bruce, Tony Adams, Richard Gough, Duncan Ferguson, Alan Shearer to name a few who were awesome in the air. In today’s game they would create havoc with their aerial ability.

There may be the view that the game has changed and that the ball isn’t played in the air as much . That may be the case but what does a team do with ten minutes to go and they need a goal? They start throwing it in the “mixer”. This is when you either need a striker that can head one in the net for you or fashion a knock down or a centre back to come and head everything out the danger zone if you are protecting a lead. Let’s not forget the number of set pieces that you have in a game where aerial ability is vital. France won a world cup final with one of the best players of his generation Zinedine Zidane scoring two headers from corner kicks. Heading is an important part of the game which cannot be ignored. I have been fortunate to carve out a 16 year professional career mainly based on my ability to head the ball. Don’t get me wrong being good in the air isn’t enough to sustain a professional career even in the lower reaches of the football league but it does provide a skill that makes you a very valuable asset to your team .

When growing up my Dad always told me that if I wanted to become a professional football player I would need to be exceptional in one specific area of my game. I always played centre back and used to attack the ball aggressively when it was in the air. Whilst I also worked on many other aspects of my game and in particular those areas where I was weaker I recognised I had a great strength in the art of heading the ball and needed to develop that art also. I would spend hours heading balls, working on my timing so that I was meeting the ball at the highest point and if possible well above everyone else.

Considering that I am 6ft 3in with a very good vertical jump I had all the ingredients to be excellent in the air. I believe I was completely dominant in the air at under 16 and under 18 level but I quickly realised I still had a lot to learn as I moved up to reserve team level at Queens Park in Scotland. In my first few reserve games I struggled aerially as far more experienced strikers would body check me or nudge me enough for them to win the header. It was a steep learning curve and one that was valuable at that stage in my career. I wonder where young players nowadays learn these lessons. Some of the lucky ones get to go out on loan where they are guaranteed to learn how different the man’s game is but too many are left playing meaningless under 18 and under 21 games against the same players they have played against their whole youth careers. A young Chelsea 17 year old centre back would learn more in one match against Newport County’s beast of a striker John Parkin than he will playing 6 months of U21 fixtures.

One thing that has improved and will continue to benefit professional footballers is the attention now being given to the treatment of head injuries. Far more stringent rules are being put in place to protect players that have suffered serious head injuries. Gone are the days when someone can get knocked out sit up count the number of fingers the Physio is holding up and carry on. When I look back at my career I wince at some of the head and facial injuries I’ve experienced and the way they have been dealt with. Playing centre back in the English football league has done nothing for my good looks. I’ve suffered multiple broken noses, a broken cheekbone, stitches to my eye, lip and face. I distinctly remember one game, away to Colchester United in the FA Cup, where I played with a lump the size of a golf ball on my forehead. I couldn’t head the ball for the pain. I struggled through the 90 minutes and my face was yellow by the end of the match as the internal bleeding began to spread. I have always been able to play through the pain barrier and duly carried on playing . In hindsight however should a medical expert not have made the decision for me and insisted I was removed from the field of play? Is that not where the ultimate duty of care really lies?

Going back to the rule changes in the US I can understand the thought process of stopping children from heading the ball at an early age it will protect their brain while it is still developing. Surely at a young age children could still learn to head the ball with a sponge ball or even a balloon. They can learn the technique without constantly heading a size 5 leather ball. It should also be remembered a modern football is nothing like what they were thirty years ago. They are lighter and don’t take on water so again advances are always being made to the benefit of the player. I actually think that the rule change will have an adverse impact and cause more injuries. How do you play a game of football when you can’t head it? What do you do when someone crosses the ball in the box? Players will more than likely start trying to control the ball or kick it in a very dangerous fashion, increasing the number of fouls given for high feet and reckless challenges. When the players are old enough to head the ball I predict that their technique and timing will be so poor it will cause even more injury problems for them and their opponent.

A large number of head injuries are caused by players who don’t know how to head the ball in the first instance or indeed are just reckless when they attempt to go for the ball. Players that are strong in the air invariably don’t inflict injury to opposing players as their timing and spring is so good they leap above everyone and head nothing but the ball. I fear in a time that whilst many things are changing for the good some aspects of the game will be lost forever as the word of political correctness takes over. I sincerely hope heading the ball is not one of them.