Following the recent tragic passing of Belgian footballers Tim Nicot and Gregory Mertens in the space of two weeks – both while playing the sport they loved and both to cardiac arrests – the Daisy Cutter republishes an outstanding piece originally published in 2013 by Richard Brook asking if football’s governing bodies are doing enough?
Exactly one year ago today, on the 17th March 2012, British football was rocked to its core, as Fabrice Muamba lay motionless on the White Hart Lane turf. The young Bolton Wanderers midfielder had collapsed on the field, with no other player close to him, during Bolton’s FA Cup quarter final tie with Tottenham. As we all now know it transpired that this was because of a cardiac incident. Muamba was fortunate to attain a recovery that even the medical staff treating him regarded as miraculous, but was still, unsurprisingly, forced to retire from football.
Muamba’s case touched the British football family in a way that previous cases, even fatal cases, of cardiac arrest on the football had not quite managed to. The obvious factor, that might have caused the public response, was the immediacy. Televised FA Cup ties have a significant number of neutral football fans tuning in, in Britain and around the world, including a large number of neutrals. I myself, heard the wake up call, far louder than when I got the news that Phil O’Donnell – a man who I had seen on a weekly basis, as a season ticket holder at Sheffield Wednesday – had died in similar circumstances, years earlier. There is something about a super-fit, modern athlete apparently close to death, being beamed into your living room that really focuses the mind.
My personal reaction was to do what I am doing now. I wrote. I am a microscopic voice in the world of football that is for sure, one of a great number of football bloggers at large on the internet. That said if I believe in something I write about it, and if I really believe in something that no-one else is doing enough to champion, then I can be quite noisy about it. I wrote two articles, on this subject, in the weeks that followed.
Suffice it to say the first drew a statistical distinction in the number of reported deaths on the football pitch before the 1990’s and after the 1990’s attributable to cardiac incidents. The statistics were shocking, in this country and worldwide, and do not appear to be replicated in other sports. As such my article called for a study of all the demands on a modern footballer, from the matches themselves, to modern training methods, sports diets, pressures and stresses, and life outside of the game.
My second article posited that given the time window in which the increase of incidents began, and the fact that there are scientific studies that show outfield footballer’s exercising less during a match before this time, than after it, that maybe the introduction of the back pass rule was a contributing factor. In addition to science, common sense would seem to indicate that everyone had a bit of a breather when the keeper could pick up a back pass, bounce the ball around his area for a bit before clearing from his hands. The idea is somewhat tongue in cheek, although it would not surprise me totally if their proved to be a grain of truth in there.
The idea that these collapses and deaths are all due solely to undetected, pre-existing heart defects is a difficult one. Not least when you realise that surely more people played on with such conditions earlier in history when medical tests were not as developed.
The point of both pieces was essentially the same: There is something specific to the sport of football occurring since the 1990’s, that is seeing otherwise fit and healthy young men find their lives in danger through cardiac arrests.
A little while after the original articles appeared in The Daisy Cutter, I received an email from the Professional Footballer’s Association (PFA). Gordon Taylor OBE, Chief Executive of the PFA expressed an interest in the comments in the articles and passed the matter to his Deputy John Bramhall to raise the matter at the next Medical Committee meeting.
Back in June I received further communication from John Bramhall stating that the PFA together with The Premier League, The FA and The Football League – all to be congratulated for acting on this – were looking at putting together a panel of cardiovascular consultants and specialists “to consider the testing programmes currently in place and also the pressure placed upon current professional footballers etc”. However in February when I was first notified that the panel had met, it emerged that the mandate was considerably narrower than indicated in June: “The panel have met and are considering the current screening programme in professional football, following which they will give their recommendations”. When I queried the reduced scope of the discussion I was informed the areas to be considered might be broadened in the future.
Mr Bramhall assures that guidance from experts in the field, is dictating the route of the investigation, and that The PFA regards this as the best possible way to protect its membership – that is to say the players. Deferral to experts is the only sensible approach and as such no implied criticism of The PFA or any of its staff should be read into anything I have written in this article, and of course for a complete layman to disagree with experts would be pushing new limits of arrogance.
However while agreeing that the present system represents the sensible starting point, I do hope that irrespective of the findings, that the conversation moves beyond the screening programme. In the weeks following March 17th 2012 I do not recall reading or hearing any meaningful criticism of the screening programme. It is a vast positive that a screening programme existed, and continues to do so, albeit Fabrice Muamba was screened not long before the quarter final. Indeed at that time the professional game spoke very highly of the work done by the screening programme. So while it is the sensible starting point, it does not seem a likely candidate for finding room for major improvements.
There simply must have been players playing before the screening programme with latent heart ailments who could not have been screened but played out careers with literally only a couple of deaths before 1990. If that statement of logic is true then screening would have made little statistical difference in terms of such tragedies.
For me the questions remain the same as they were a year ago: 1. What happened, in football, around the 1990’s to cause an upturn in the number of fatal or near fatal cardiac incidents on the football field? 2. Why are we not seeing this marked increase in relation to other sports?
As a sport football must resist the temptation to allow this panel to give the screening programme a well-deserved pat on the back and close the case. If that temptation is not resisted, and questions do not only go unanswered, but also unasked then football will have learned nothing from everything Fabrice Muamba went through in 2012.