Dementia in football: How does a match with 'no heading' work?

Dr. Judith Gates is pictured here with Mark Solan, one of the team captains. Bill Gates, her husband, was a former Middlesbrough defender. He was diagnosed with dementia in 2014.
Football is a simple game. It's played with your feet and won with your head. What happens when your head is literally numb?

This weekend's historic game was held at Spennymoor Town’s Brewery Field, in the north-east part of England. The first ever adult 11-aside football match with heading restrictions was witnessed by just over 300 spectators to raise awareness about the dangers of dementia.

The first half saw players restricted to kicking the ball within the 18-yard box. The second half saw the ban on heading the ball anywhere on the field.

Both former and current professional footballers made up the two teams.

Dr. Judith Gates founded Head for Change, a charity that was responsible for arranging this game. Bill Gates, her husband, was a former Middlesbrough defender. He was diagnosed with dementia in 2014.

He is now 77 years old and has had migraines for the past 29 years.

Dr. Gates stated that "my husband will enjoy today, but he won’t remember it tomorrow," BBC Sport reported.

"He is becoming increasingly frail, and his short-term memory has almost disappeared. We are fulfilling his wish by acting on his behalf. He said that he wanted his legacy to be such that no one else in the family has to go through the same thing he had. That's why today is all about.

Bill Gates stood in the middle of the pitch and received a minute's applause prior to the Spennymoor vs. Team Solan game. Before he moved to Middlesbrough, he began his career at Spennymoor FC.

The match was played as any other football match. Both teams had players who were experienced at the Premier League and international levels.

After about five minutes, a ball was thrown up from the left-back position. The opposing team's centre back took the ball. The crowd and the opposing players were enthralled by the antics.

The attacking team received a free kick and the game continued.

Mark Tinkler made the mistake and admitted that it was true.

It adds a new dimension to your game. You have to think faster, get the ball down on your chest, and find other solutions.

Tinkler is now a Middlesbrough youth coach. He was a professional footballer for 17 years, and played for many teams, including Southend United, York City, and Leeds United.

Football has had a long tradition of head coaching. Even though formats such as five-aside can be played without head, it is essential for the 11-aside game. The match had little impact during Sunday's 90-minutes.

Team Solan won on penalties

Team Solan won on penalties and the game ended 5-5. Ironically, the first goal, scored midway through the second half, was a legal head goal from within the box.

Head for Change made it clear that it doesn't want to ban heading altogether. It wants to increase awareness and call for more research on the long-term consequences of heading a football.

This issue has been prominent in recent years due to its effect on England's 1966 World Cup winning squad. Nobby Stiles and Jack Charlton both died from brain functional diseases that were thought to be closely linked to football-heading.

Sir Bobby Charlton, another member of the squad, was diagnosed with dementia last year. A 2019 study showed that professional footballers are more likely than other people to develop a neurodegenerative brain disorder.

Craig Hignett, a former Blackburn Rovers and Middlesbrough player, said that he doesn't believe matches will be played in this way. He also stated that he didn't know how many times a center-half can head the ball in 90 minutes.

"With dementia and head-aball being linked, so many great players are struggling, we need to look at this issue so that we can find a safer path forward."

The discussion on how to make it safer is likely to continue for some time.

The Football Association has updated its guidelines regarding heading. It now prohibits it from training under-11s and limits it to other age groups. England's professional clubs have been instructed to limit their players to 10 "higher force headers" per week during training.

"Steps are being made in the right direction to ensure that these actions are constructive. Dr. Gates stated that we need more evidence, more research, more understanding and steps to protect the players in the future.