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The Irishman aiming to help combat football’s dementia crisis

Former League of Ireland footballer Mark Herrick is the co-founder of Headrite Sports.

Former Galway and Cork City player Mark Herrick set up Headrite Sports in 2016.
Former Galway and Cork City player Mark Herrick set up Headrite Sports in 2016.

MARK HERRICK’S life has been steeped in football.

His father John won three caps for Ireland and had a good career in the domestic game, representing Cork Hibernians, Shamrock Rovers and Galway among others.

Herrick junior then followed in his dad’s footsteps, also forging a career in the League of Ireland, lining out for both Galway and Cork City.

Since childhood, he has been interested particularly in heading the ball.

“How I learned to head the ball was suspending a football from above, and jumping to head it to improve your timing,” he tells The42.

You put it in a pillow case and I hung it from a washing line as a 15-year-old and I became very good in the air. And it stood to me throughout a League of Ireland career, this skill of being able to head the ball, and this is how I learned how to head it. I’d seen some footage of Pele doing something similar in the 1970s, with [Brazilian club] Santos.

“This was the summer that Ray Houghton scored the headed goal against England and I guess it was a skill that there hadn’t been much controversy around [at the time].”

Around 12 years ago, when Herrick was working as assistant boss at Mervue United, he revisited and expanded upon the original idea.

“I came up with a frame. I just wanted lads to be good in the air. We had no budget and I actually put a ball in a pillow case, I got a welder to make a frame, and we hung it from above.

“The lads liked it. It was good training methodology that we used and it was for adults. At the time, a few people were asking me where I got it.”

Several years later, Herrick was contacted by a friend at Cork City, who asked him about the device, which had been consigned to a shed in Mervue. The idea of commercialising it was suggested and eventually, in 2016, Headrite Sports was founded by Herrick and another business partner who has since left the company to pursue other interests.

Herrick took a career break from his day job as a schoolteacher, receiving support from Enterprise Ireland, as he developed a training aid for improving players’ aerial ability. Ultimately, though, it took on an extra degree of significance.

“This was all at a time when it was all kicking off regarding the links between heading and long-term injury. The film ‘Concussion’ came out, with Will Smith.

“This was originally about improving players’ ability and proficiency. And then, when I started looking at the methodology, I said: ‘Listen, the ball is travelling at a lower speed, we don’t have to put a match-like ball into it.’

“So our messaging changed in those years, 2016 and 2017. Now, there are so many people contacting us with regard to it just being a safer way to practice.”

IMG-20201202-WA0016

Herrick continues: “It has transpired that there are numerous ways of suspending a football from above.

Anything that was on the market was very crude and we thought, flawed in its design. So we came up with a very sophisticated way of doing it that’s mobile, it can be used on grass, on Astroturf, and we use foam balls. We went to UCD and did some research using a foam ball travelling at the speeds at our training age and looking at the impacts using a foam ball on the head.

“It has since come to light that our system of practicing seems to be the only way of truly safeguarding a player.”

In recent years, strong evidence has emerged suggesting links between playing football and the subsequent onset of dementia.

Numerous ex-footballers have suffered from the illness, including members of the 1966 England World Cup-winning team, with Manchester United legend Bobby Charlton the latest former pro to be diagnosed

Concussion, meanwhile, continues to be a problem in the modern game. In 2017, for instance, former Irish international Kevin Doyle was forced to retire owing to “repeated headaches” as a result of various injuries sustained during his career.

The issues around heading the ball are not an especially new controversy. Dawn Astle, daughter of the West Brom legend Jeff, has been campaigning tirelessly for more research to be undertaken and awareness to be raised on the issue, since her father’s death at the age of 59 in 2002, which was determined to have been caused by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive brain condition that was linked with heading the ball.

Last year, a landmark study by the University of Glasgow revealed that former footballers are three and a half times more likely to suffer from dementia and other serious neurological diseases.

The 22-month research project also discovered “a five-fold increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s, a four-fold increase in motor neurone disease and a two-fold increase in Parkinson’s”.

Other studies have come to similar conclusions in relation to the links between dementia and football.

These findings prompted the Football Association, in conjunction with the Scottish FA and Irish FA to release new guidelines, advising against children under the age of 11 to be taught to head the ball in training, though this instruction does not extend to competitive matches.

Meanwhile, in the USA, after a group of players and parents in California filed a class-action lawsuit against Fifa, US Soccer and the American Youth Soccer Organisation in 2014, rule changes meant that children aged 10 or younger were prohibited from heading the ball, while the activity was greatly reduced for 11-13-year-old players. As a consequence, indirect free kicks are now awarded to the opposition at that level, when a player intentionally heads the ball.

Subsequently, there have been suggestions others could follow this model, though it remains a complicated issue. Despite the various studies, little action has been taken amid limited understanding in relation to the extent of the threat, with most countries yet to impose any serious restrictions on heading.

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sir-bobby-charlton-file-photos Man United and England great Bobby Charlton was recently diagnosed with dementia. Source: PA

As Herrick points out: “The lack of guidelines means right now, if you want, though it’s unlikely to happen, [in most countries] you can serve a football 100 times at a six-year-old and ask them to head it back, and there’s nothing written down to say that’s inappropriate.

“So it is up to governing bodies to come out and say: ‘This is how you introduce heading, this is when we introduce heading and these are the types of drills we use, and this is the frequency. The English FA have responded and at least they’ve done something.”

There is also one common misconception that modern players are less prone to suffering long-term damage, because older balls were supposedly heavier. As a recent piece on The Conversation notes: “This link cannot be dismissed as a result of older, heavy balls that were replaced by lighter balls in recent years. This is a myth, as both older and new balls weigh 14-16oz. And while older balls got heavier when wet, they travelled slower and were less likely to be kicked to head height in games.”

Herrick says his company have been paying close attention to the aforementioned developments.

“We brought out our own guidelines that our current clients are using on our programmes, implementing the frequency of practice and the types of drills that are age-specific.

Now we’re getting a lot of enquiries from some serious stakeholders in the game, and I guess we’ve kind of gone with the momentum and said: ‘This methodology is a way of keeping this skill in the game. It’s a way of safeguarding players and letting them enjoy heading it.’ It’s very much an under-fire skill.

“Therefore, we’ve to stay up to date on all the links with dementia and damage, and various guidelines that federations are bringing out and the limitations of such.

“So we’re the only ones in the world doing what we’re doing, which is kind of interesting. But at the same time, it’s also quite daunting being in such a contentious space.”

He continues: “Uefa thankfully brought out their guidelines in the summer and they are suggesting that it is appropriate to use foam balls for practicing with young kids — they reduce the burden.

“We were campaigning to Uefa and showing them our research, saying we use a foam ball when we’re practicing. And it’s travelling on average at five kilometres an hour. So that negates the most recent study from Leeds University, which is suggesting that the speed of the ball is a greater variable in possibly causing long-term damage than the weight of the ball.”

IMG-20201202-WA0007 The Headrite sports team at Manchester City.

Herrick is currently working with a number of League of Ireland clubs, as well as the Guam Football Association, and hopes to link up with others soon.

“We’re currently talking to various stakeholders who are interested in making this a product or system that can reach players all around the world,” he adds. “That might take time, but at least people are talking about it.

“We don’t see banning heading as a solution. But how do you introduce it? Introduce it with a softer ball, improving your timing and technique, and there’s coaching involved in that.

For people’s mental health, it’s so important that they enjoy this wonderful game. It’s not about selling my own stuff, but what happens when using our system, it just becomes good fun again. 

“But we’re in a very niche and unique space, and we have to be careful that we’re not [perceived as] trying to gain commercially out of the unfortunate situation of dementia, and people that are suffering.

“If we can help change [mindsets] and inform people about this skill, and make it more readily available in the future, we’ve done our job.”

IMG-20201202-WA0003 Herrick was known for his heading ability as a player.

And as a former footballer, Herrick admits to having his own concerns about potentially suffering from dementia in future.

“Absolutely, and my partner in this business is [former Bohemians and Cork City player] Derek Coughlan. There are great photographs of me and Derek heading footballs. It was a big, strong part of our game in the 1990s, when it was very much aerial challenges and elbows flying, and that.

“Looking at all the stuff coming out about the amount of people in the English game who have suffered from it and these are only the ones we know, the high-profile cases, I suspect and I fear that it’ll happen [to me]. That’s down the line and I’m not dealing with that now. I’ve enough challenges to be dealing with in the present as opposed to what happens in the future. And Derek would be the same. 

“[Watford player] Troy Deeney recently said: ‘Look, this is what we signed up for.’ At the same time, you’ve got people campaigning saying: ‘Yeah, but other people end up caring for you.’”

And can Herrick ever envisage a day when heading is banned completely from football?

“My own feeling is I don’t know, but it does seem at times alien, when you look at propelling your head at a ball.

Because of everything, the fact your brain is in [your head] and you’re thrusting your head aggressively at a ball, now, when you break it down to that, it just doesn’t make sense. However, it’s very much part of the game that we know and love. If they do introduce something, it could be 20 or 30 years away, perhaps.

“Or wouldn’t it be nice if the solution was that our training programme was a way of keeping this in the game, because the damages are totally mitigated against all the issues by this methodology.

“As was said by Alan Shearer in the documentary, ‘Dementia, Football and Me,’ every goal you score, you practice 1,000 times in training. So training is the issue, and we have to change our training methodology, no question about it.”

You can find more info on Headrite Sports by visiting their official website here.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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