by Richard Brook

It is June 17th 1990, in Palermo, Italy, the final few minutes are being played out in a goalless draw between the Republic of Ireland and Egypt, that Irish pundit Eamon Dunphy was to denounce as an Irish performance of which to be ashamed. As the game reached its dour conclusion, legendary Irish goalkeeper Packie Bonner retained possession of the football for a tedious six minutes. The keeper played out this time by dribbling the ball around his own penalty area and picking it up whenever a challenge seemed imminent, only return the ball to his feet and restart the mind-numbing cycle.

This incident was amongst a number of collective straws that broke the back of the International Football Association Board (IFAB). The result was two rule changes. The first was that the goalkeeper could no longer release the ball from his hands to his feet and pick the ball up again without another player touching the ball in between. Secondly the goalkeeper could no longer handle the ball following a deliberate back pass from the foot of a team-mate.

From a personal perspective I am a big fan of these rules, though normally conservative as regards rule changes to the beautiful game, and the effect they have had from the point of view of the spectator. As a 10 year old boy I was in the crowd at Hillsborough to see Sheffield Wednesday defeat Manchester United 3-2 in 1991. In my memory this was an enthralling encounter. I recently re-visited this match, through the near obsolete medium of a VHS videotape. The truth was somewhat different. I was frankly amazed at how much time the ball spent under the control of the respective keepers. Particularly with the score at 2-1 to United, I was shocked at the regularity with which Bruce and Pallister knocked the ball about between themselves on halfway, before returning it to Peter Schmeichel. The back pass rule makes for a far more exciting game, in that ball forcibly spends much more time in open play.

In an article for The Daisy Cutter, last week, I stated that I felt a full review should be undertaken of the modern professional footballer’s lifestyle, in the wake of Fabrice Muamba’s on-field collapse. I still feel this should be undertaken. I also noted, however, that – based on the reports I was able to find – of the on-field deaths, in football, there has been a marked rise in the number that are related to cardiac incidents since 1990. I hinted at the question: What has changed since 1990?

The following is a question rather than a statement I make with any certainty: Is it plausible enough to warrant further investigation, that a possible cause for the rise in frequency of fatal or near-fatal cardiac incidents in modern football is the back pass rule?

This bizarre question entered my head whilst playing a popular football video game. As Bruce and Pallister were in 1991, I was defending a one goal lead and I was somewhat cynically passing the ball back to my goalkeeper, every time one of my defenders won a tackle. Unlike Schmeichel, my goalkeeper was unable to pick the ball up, and so I was lumping it forward for the attackers to chase. A careless thought, in the light of recent events, occurred to me: ‘If this were real, they’d all be having heart attacks’.

So is this a plausible explanation? Firstly we have the timing of the rule’s implementation. The rule came into being in 1992, with Sheffield Wednesday first to fall foul of it, against Manchester City on September 5th. My imaginary line in the sand regarding the statistics of fatal cardiac incidents was drawn at 1990. My only reason for doing so was that this year saw only the second death of a British-based football player, resulting from an on-field cardiac incident that I could find record of. This player was David Longhurst of York City. It would be just as easy to have drawn this line two years later than I originally did, to coincide with the back pass rule had it occurred to me.

In addition to this, from the reports, I have been able to find of sportspersons generally, who died during competition, other sports are not seeing the same increased incidence of cardiac arrest. This would seem to indicate that the spike in such incidents stems from something that changed specifically in the sport of association football in the early 1990’s. Of course this does not rule out other factors, for example a lot of money entered the game at around this point in time, and the footballer’s lifestyle changed irrevocably. My view remains that it is prudent to review all aspects of players’ lives to try and establish a possible cause.

It would appear to be an obvious result of the back pass rule that the ball spends more time in open play than it previously did. The net result of this is less recuperation time between passages of play for the players. This is great for the supporters but is it this that is having an impact on the players’ health? Football has always been about stop-start periods of high level physical exertion over 90 minutes. It is just that it seems that since 1992 there has been less stopping than ever before.

Scientific studies seem to back up the idea that footballers are doing more work on the pitch than in the past. In 1976 Reilly and Thomas wrote that the total distance covered by an outfield player during a match was between 8 kilometres and 11 kilometres. Yet in their 2006 paper Bangsbo, Mohr and Krustrup stated that an average top class outfielder was covering between 10 kilometres and 13 kilometres. The same paper states that “soccer is an intermittent sport in which the aerobic energy system is highly taxed, with mean and peak heart rates of around 85 and 98% of maximal values, respectively”. So whether due to the back pass rule or not the modern footballer is covering an average of an extra 2km per match more than his predecessors, with a heart rate peaking at a level just 2% off capacity.

The facts, as they appear to me, are that the introduction of the back pass rule coincides with a worrying upturn in the instance of fatal, or near fatal, cardiac arrests on the football field in Britain and worldwide, that we are yet to see in other sports and with a verifiable increase in the work that the average player does on the field of play. Given this set of circumstances surely it is a line of enquiry worthy of investigation, that the reduction of recovery time brought about by the back pass rule might be linked to the increase in cardiac arrests on the football pitch.

Lessons from Muamba:The Heart Of The Modern Game