Lee Howey played for his hometown club in the 1990s, key to Peter Reid’s promotion squad of 1996. Highly committed as both centre-half and striker, Lee headed more balls than most.
But he would like a rule change for footballers of today, and is calling for a system where players with possible head injuries can be substituted, but return to the pitch with a doctor’s permission.
He says players might otherwise conceal head injuries for fear of losing their team places.
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Lee said: “The rule should come in straight away. Footballers never want to come off the pitch.
“I remember being concussed in a reserve game against Aston Villa. I’d collided with Ugo Ehiogu and had to ask somebody at half-time what the score was. I was substituted, but would have played on if they’d let me.”
A 2019 report found no definitive link, but confirmed players were three-and-a-half times more likely to die of dementia and other neurological diseases.
Lee added: “It’s quite concerning, although we’re generally talking about footballers in an era before mine when the balls were super-heavy.
“My game was based around heading the ball. I remember many a day in training heading balls from crosses 30-40 times in succession; and we trained a few times a week. Heading crosses was a big part of my job as both defender and striker.
“My short-term memory is not what it was and it’s a family joke. But I don’t know if that’s just because I’m nearly 52.”
However Lee, who lives in Fatfield and is now a director in the payments industry, still sees heading as fundamental to the sport and is sceptical about dementia being classed as an industrial injury.
He said: “How can a footballer do all the things he loves – and would do again – then claim?
“You can’t take heading away from football. And it isn’t just that, there are collisions and fouls too. You can only do so much. You can’t remove all risk, or wear crash helmets. It’s a contact sport.
“We play these games because we love them. Despite everything, if I could go back and score another 100 headers for Sunderland then I would.”