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12 April 2023

Whether sodden bomb or swerving orb, the football has always been a dangerous item

This is a world where “concussion sports law” is already a discipline and a trade.

By Russell Davies

“Shoot!” must be the oldest touchline cry of the football spectator, and with many attackers currently adding needless filigree to their approach play, it’s back in fashion. But then shooting itself is a more complex art than it used to be. Discussed in terms of spin, drift, dip, curve and loop, it sounds more like an exercise in copperplate handwriting than giving a ball an old-fashioned kick.

The first shot I remember admiring has lived long in the archives. It’s my sentimental habit, on my late father’s birthday, to watch the newsreel account of the 1953 FA Cup final, won by Blackpool, where we lived. He went to the match, and watching Pathé News’s hectic digest of it was the start for me of a football fandom that included three seasons of top-division match reporting.

Much has been written about that final: the exploits of Stanley Matthews, and the stricken Bolton player Eric Bell for whom no substitute was then possible (yet Bell still managed to score). But what amazed me was Stan Mortensen’s free-kick from a yard or two outside the penalty area. In the Pathé film, you simply can’t see the shot happening. It goes too fast. Mortensen runs in, the ball evaporates, then reappears as a bobbling presence in the back of the net. Even in slo-mo, you can only just follow the ball on its straight, rising, implacable line.

What you don’t get is the sound it will have made. The old leather ball, classically struck by an instep encased in the old leather boot, generated a noise that only the Royal Artillery could have replicated. I first noted this live at Old Trafford, when in the autumn before the Munich disaster my ever-useful father took me to see the Busby Babes. Duncan Edwards tried one extra-distant, grass-skimming pot shot, just reached by a sprawling goalkeeper. Its sound could only be described as a boom, a detonation.

The naked leather football was indeed a dangerous item. Finding this out, in a muddy school match, brought the most frightening moment of my life. As the world knows, the leather-and-laces ball doubled in weight when wet, which in Manchester it always was. Our goalkeeper, the largest student in the school both upwards and sideways, launched a skyrocket clearance which I foolishly stood under, with intent to head. It landed squarely – and if a ball can land squarely, that one did – on the top of my skull.

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[See also: The tragedy of English football]

What happens then is that your shoulder-blades snap together behind you – I heard them clash – and the lungs are emptied instantly. Worse, the muscles that replenish them suddenly won’t work. How long it took to find a way to breathe again I can’t say, but wandering about while internally paralysed was terrifying.

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There had been big-time precedents for this. Stan Cullis of Wolves was knocked out in the 1938/39 season, and went into intensive care with severe concussion. From then on, headers, which Cullis was famous for, tended to reactivate the trauma. Soon, doctors advised him that another such blow might end his life, let alone his career. Other such blows did come, during wartime matches, and one of them put him on the danger list for five days.

Of course, Cullis suffered from dementia in his later years. Billy Wright, another symbol of Wolves’ heyday, shed tears on seeing him in the nursing home. The same fate awaited the virtuoso ball-header Stan Mortensen in the 1980s – though having survived, as a teenage wireless operator, the crash of his Wellington bomber in 1939, he’d at least had some share of better luck.

It’s no longer possible for today’s hotshots to live such varied lives. But they face some of the same dangers. Football legislators after my time will have to deal more decisively with the demands of a world where “concussion sports law” is already a discipline and a trade. The newest design of ball, for all that Bukayo Saka can make lovely bends and whorls with it, apparently doesn’t treat the brain much more kindly than the old cannonball, and the neuro-psychological testing now ordered by the FA comes necessarily after the fact. There is no test or scan to diagnose the immediate seriousness of an impact – only the evidence of a trained observer’s eyes, and the player’s own history. “Shoot!” remains a legitimate plea, until someone’s face gets in the way.

[See also: Football remains spectacular, but the trust between clubs and the public is broken]

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This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue