David Meyler believes Irish teams will be able to work around any possible rule change on heading the ball in training, following the Scottish Football Association’s decision to ban professional footballers from headers the day before and the day after matches.
The former Republic of Ireland international, currently working as an assistant coach with the Irish Under-17s, says much of modern training is already done without players needing to head the ball.
“Set pieces is a great example,” Meyler explains to The Irish Times. “I’m involved with the Irish Under-17s and we do set pieces in training like pretty much every team does. We do walk throughs so players aren’t heading the ball.
“Like that’s something that’s evolved over time. Going back to my early days playing and we used to go through set pieces where you constantly had to defend them or attack them and they wanted you to get on the end of it.
“Whereas now a lot of training is walk throughs where players aren’t necessarily heading the ball. So would people get involved in it – coaches and players – and get on board with it? I certainly think they would. If it’s a way to prevent dementia I think people would be proactive towards it. It just comes down to session planning and what way that is organised.”
Following further research into concussion and the impact of heading on the brain, the principle recommendation of the Scottish FA is that no heading drills should take place in training sessions the days before and after matches.
Clubs should also limit training exercises involving repeated heading to once per week and heading activity should be monitored to ensure it is reduced overall.
“Is it feasible? Can it work? Yeah it can,” says Meyler. “In my time at Hull we used to play sessions on a Friday morning or the day before a game where you weren’t allowed to let the ball go above head height and if you did it was a foul. Now that wasn’t done to prevent heading that was more done to try to keep the ball on the floor the whole time. But sessions like that worked.
“I think the game is modernising so much and is changing so much, like if you look at goalkeepers . . . for the existence of goalkeepers it was about can they save the ball and can they catch the ball? Now the first question to ask about a young goalkeeper is can he play with the ball at his feet?”
With over 100 Premier League appearances for Sunderland and Hull City from 2009 to 2017, Meyler has seen the game change in many ways since his early playing days:
“Nowadays what is the interpretation of a tackle, like I made a career out of winning the ball back and being able to tackle and I never shied away from a tackle. But that’s gone now you can’t make tackles any more. The game is always evolving and changing.
“So even the likes of your John Terrys and [Nemanja] Vidic, who were throwing their bodies on the line and heading and blocking every ball. I think the days of them are almost gone. The best centre halves in the world now are so comfortable playing with the ball at their feet that that’s nearly their role.
“So I think with the development of young players, particularly in our country we are putting an emphasis on if that can defender play. So I don’t think it would be a downfall if a player isn’t heading the ball as much.”
Meyler, who has no knowledge of the FAI planning to follow Scotland’s lead does expect most associations “to fall in line”.
“Eventually a lot of people do end up following suit,” says the Cork native. “This started with the FA and underage football and now it’s gone into the first teams in Scotland. So you would imagine it’s going to fall in line across all associations but I’m not sure who would make that decision or when or how that would be made.”
When asked for a reaction to the Scottish FA’s ban on heading balls, an FAI spokesperson said: “The FAI works closely with our fellow associations and with our medical colleagues in Uefa and Fifa on all safety matters related to playing and training, including heading, for professional leagues and adult amateur players.
“We remain committed to the safety of all our players and will continue to be driven by the scientific evidence and research as we continuously monitor all aspects of player safety in conjunction with our professional and amateur players here at home.”
David Meyler was speaking as part of Virgin Media’s Gamers are Athletes campaign where he faced Team WYLDE esports players in a FIFA battle