Sunday 21 January 2018

Aidan O'Hara: Doyle's decision unlikely to start concussion conversation

Kevin Doyle. Photo: Sportsfile
Kevin Doyle. Photo: Sportsfile
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

It's one of football's most famous one liners but, with every passing year, it becomes a little less funny. When Partick Thistle striker Colin McGlashan clashed heads with an opponent in the early '90s, the physio recommended his removal and told manager John Lambie that McGlashan didn't know who he was.

"Great. Tell him he's Pele and get him back on," was the legendary response.

It has been repeated in various guises for comedic effect over the years but the principle that underlines it remains true, even allowing for increasing knowledge of concussion and other injuries. If a player can play now, he plays; we can worry about the future in the future.

Last week, Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren admitted that he has been taking five pills before games in order to get through them.

"I have problems with my whole body for the last two weeks, my back and now I have hurt my achilles tendon," he said. "I am taking pills so I can play - five before every game. I play but I cannot train at all."

Concern

In an ordinary job, taking five pills in order to get through a day's work would probably be cause for concern and require a rest until the root of the problem is solved, but players are happy to do whatever it takes to play - and clubs are happy to let them.

Lovren's interview was minor news and many fans reacted, like Lambie, with a joke that the pills mustn't be performance-enhancing. At some point, however, you would imagine the football world will stop laughing.

Last week, Kevin Doyle released a statement citing headaches and concussion as primary reasons for his retirement, and the hope was that it might start a conversation about what certain players go through - particularly those who put their head in where it hurts.

Doyle, however, has effectively been out of the limelight since he chose to join Colorado Rapids and end a 10-year career in English football, in which he blazed a trail for players from the League of Ireland.

In Ireland, his retirement was big news and the brave decision he made to share the real reasons for it are worthy of praise, but sadly, if an obvious concussion can be missed on the biggest stage of all, it's unlikely that the retirement of a 64-cap 14-goal Irish striker will suddenly make the world sit up and take notice.

In the last World Cup final, Germany's Christoph Kramer collided with the shoulder of Argentina's Ezequiel Garay. Within 54 seconds, he had been assessed and was back on the field, where he spent the next 15 minutes with no idea he was in the biggest game of his life.

"Shortly after he'd been struck by Garay, Kramer came to me asking 'ref, is this the final?'," said referee Nicola Rizzoli afterwards. "I thought he was joking so I asked him to repeat the question, and he said; ' I need to know if this is really the final.' After I said 'yes', he said: 'Thanks, that's important to know'."

"I don't know anything from the first half," Kramer later said. "How I got to the changing-rooms I don't know."

A study from that tournament, published last summer found that nearly two-thirds of head collisions did not receive adequate assessment by a heath-care professional.

In the study, reported in the Guardian, four trained reviewers noted 81 head collision events, with 67 showing two or more signs of concussion, of which only 16pc - one of which was Kramer - were removed from the pitch for assessment.

Michael Cusimano, a neursurgeon and co-author of the study, believes that pressure on team medics - like that at Partick Thistle in the early '90s - means assessments should be carried out independently, adding: "It doesn't matter whether they had a concussion - my point is that they should be assessed."

It bears repeating that all of this happened at the World Cup.

FIFA did react by putting a procedure in place where a referee can stop a game for three minutes if a concussion is suspected but, while it may have been enforced in a game since, there needs to be greater publicity for a referee making such a decision in order to highlight the initiative.

"This year it has been clear to me that heading the ball was becoming problematic and causing me to have repeated headaches," wrote Doyle in his retirement statement.

"Two concussions this season and numerous other over the years have made this more concerning."

The words "problematic", "numerous" and "concerning" leap off the statement in a classically Irish under-stated way of dealing with a serious issue. Yet it's another statement from the United States last week which is likely to have a greater impact on football's relationship with concussion.

Researchers at Boston University announced they had found a biomarker in living patients that could alert doctors to the presence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative neurological condition which, until now, could only be diagnosed after death.

Successful

It may be many years away but, should the research continue to be successful, it could potentially become part of a player's medical history in the same manner that hamstring issues or knee problems already are. And it's at this point where, like the NFL, football will have to take notice because it will involve the one thing all huge sporting bodies understand: money.

Doyle's description of "numerous others over the years" is probably applicable to hundreds of players typically described as brave or committed by managers of clubs who will happily cast them aside once they have reached their best before date.

In the future, should a club not test a player for such an ailment, they could potentially be liable to the sort of claims which now see the NFL on the hook for a one billion dollar compensation liability to thousands of former players.

If a player who has no idea where he is for 20 minutes during the biggest game in the sport can't spark greater emphasis on concussion then Doyle's eloquent words in retirement won't open the floodgates, but hitting organisations in the pocket for not looking after their players being hit in the head just might.

Until then, everyone can just keep taking five pills before a match and get on with it.

Irish Independent

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