Matt Smith is an endangered species. At 6ft 6ins, the Millwall striker is a traditional target man and still thriving in a sport falling out of love with players like him.
"I’m almost up to 50 stitches in my head and face," he says. "I had my front two teeth knocked out with a boot to the face in a friendly. I've broken my nose and had many, many head injuries. Touch wood I've never been aware of a concussion."
Smith has made a career out of being an aerial threat, and suspects he would not have made it in football if heading was outlawed. But his stance typifies the tension between the current generation of players – for whom a ban on heading is unthinkable – and those who have retired who are far more open to it.
Alan Shearer spent his 2017 documentary Dementia, Football and Me looking like he had seen a ghost, while Terry Butcher recently called for heading to be phased out .
Gary Pallister told Jeremy Wilson last week about his "awful migraines" and feeling like he had a "head full of seashells" courtesy of a career spent heading balls clear from Manchester United's penalty area.
Smith's grandfather suffered "terribly" with dementia, but he rarely dwells on the possibility of anything similar affecting him. "It's human nature when you’re young, in your 20s and 30s, to think that you’re invincible and that will never happen to you," he says.
"These are things that come around at such a later period of your life, so there’s that 'ignorance is bliss' approach. The ramifications on your health and your wellbeing are parked off to one side in favour of trying to make the best out of what is a short career in a ruthless industry. It’s certainly not the way we can afford to think."
‘No heading? It was a bit weird’
The facts are these: former footballers are three-and-a-half times more likely than the general public to die of a degenerative brain disease. It is not simply heading the ball which is dangerous but the jostling for it, and clashing with other players.
Plenty expect the problem to evaporate in future because today's players use lighter balls than the absorbent leather puddings of the past but this is a hardy myth: while modern balls do not absorb moisture in the same way any change in weight is offset by the increased velocity at which the ball travels.
The tide is turning slowly. Bournemouth's academy stopped youth players heading in training in 2019. Guidance was released before the season suggesting clubs limit each player to no more than 10 "high-force" headers in training per week.
That guidance is not audited, so some clubs follow it and others disregard it. In September Spurs manager Nuno Espirito Santo said: "I don't count how many times our players head the ball. Football is jumping, heading. It's part of the game."
Fine. But what if it was not? The same weekend Nuno spoke there was a real-life example of how the game might look. A charity match at Spennymoor Town trialled no headers except in the penalty area in the first half . In the second they were banned entirely.
"It was a bit weird," says Gavin McCann, the former Sunderland midfielder who played in the game. "You probably get in positions a bit quicker, higher up the pitch. Defences dropped a bit deeper. The centre-halves were in more trouble than anyone else, if they weren't in position quickly enough."
It is not just in charity games where football seems to be leaving headers behind. Headed goals and aerial duels in the Premier League are currently at their lowest levels since Opta began tracking those metrics in 2013, but the evidence is there with your own eyes. Few defenders make their name on being imposing headers of the ball.
As a striker, Dominic Calvert-Lewin's prowess in the air marks him out as a novelty compared to his peers, all-round technicians whose height seems incidental. The best wide players now cut inside to shoot or play through balls on the ground. The days of getting past a full-back to the byline and whipping in a cross seem as distant as unsponsored shirts.
‘You wouldn’t get Duncan Fergusons any more’
Clues to how a heading-free version of football might look may be found in futsal, the hard court game invented in Uruguay and played with a smaller, heavier and less bouncy ball. There is no overhead height restriction, but headers are rare.
Some of its conventions are already here, notably in Pep Guardiola's Manchester City – the Catalan was a devotee of the game at Barcelona – and his disciples. The desire to dominate possession, risky short-range passing when deep in your own half and advanced goalkeepers so adept with their feet they can contribute to a team's attack are all futsal tactics.
The body shape of the average footballer may change, too. "You wouldn't need a Duncan Ferguson in the team," says Jamie Fahey, author of Futsal: The Story of an Indoor Football Revolution .
"You'll get more N'Golo Kante-like players as defenders, who will be good at interceptions and nicking the ball in front of someone, because you will know the ball won't just be tossed up. It will become about interpreting timing and space."
In the Premier League's recent history we may have had a glimpse of the sort of non-heading specialist who could thrive.
"About 10 years ago when Marouanne Fellaini was at his peak at Everton, David Moyes almost played without a striker," Fahey says.
"Fellaini would move up from central midfield and control the ball with his chest, almost like he was catching it. That's a massive skill that would be more important than heading. People would control it higher up their body."
‘Do we ban golf because fans could get hit by a ball?’
This is all very well in the top flight but the revolution will take longer to catch light in the lower leagues. In League Two, for instance, more than one in five goals have been scored with the head this season – that figure rises to one in eight in the Premier League.
Newport County's game with Bradford City last Saturday provides a typical example: it produced 62 aerial duels (slightly above the League Two average for the season and twice as many as the Premier League's), many of which came after long goal kicks, thought to be among the most dangerous incidents for players' brains.
It also highlighted the dilemma facing the game. Nobody can seriously claim that they would miss the spells of head tennis played out at Rodney Parade, but the match's most exciting moment came when Newport's James Clarke headed against the crossbar early in the second half.
For English football's lower leagues, where direct football and a frenetic pace are baked into the lower league DNA, eliminating heading would be sacrilegious.
Even higher up the food chain, resistance is palpable. You would never accuse Mark Warburton's teams of being long ball, but the Queens Park Rangers manager is wary of any changes. "I'm really struggling with it," he says. "What sport isn't dangerous? Do we ban spectators in golf, because of the danger of being hit by a golf ball?
"Heading is a vital part of a player’s technical armoury, and part of the game the spectators love and enjoy. If you’re going to change the nature of the game we all love by such a ludicrous degree, you might as well go to an eight a-side sport, keep it under head height and have goals which are no more than 6ft tall."
‘I don’t know if players understand the consequences’
Dr Judith Gates has a different view. She was a founder of the charitable foundation Head for Change which advocates for improvement in brain health within football and rugby. Her husband Bill played for Middlesbrough in the 1960s and 70s and now suffers from dementia.
"When I watched Bill at Middlesbrough I thought he was indestructible," she says. "He looked so powerful, strong, agile – indestructible would definitely be the word. And I’ve seen that he isn’t. I’ve seen what this disease does to him, and continues to do to him.
"Now, I can’t look at football and say, 'Wow, wasn’t that an amazing header!', because I’m immediately thinking, 'What damage might that have done?' One header on its own or even one out and out concussion may not make a difference, but I say to myself 'does that player understand the potential consequences?'"
In the end, that is all that might be achievable – proper education about why anyone who plays enough could be at risk. Football does not have to settle for a crude choice between banning all heading immediately or carrying on as we always have.
Mandating rather than suggesting fewer headers in training might be a start, and spectators at the Spennymoor trial match seemed to accept that only permitting headers inside the area was viable.
The unintended consequences of the biggest rule-change in the sport's history could take decades to settle, but football is strong enough to withstand radical change. Arguing for tradition and spectacle only goes so far when the other option is a harrowing end of life for players and their families.
Ask yourself, if football did not exist and you were devising it from scratch, would you include heading in the rules?
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