Sunday 26 January 2020

Mass hysteria won't prevent another Muamba scare

Extra heart scans for professional players are not the answer, writes David James

How many heart screenings have I had in my career? I honestly could not tell you. Neither do I think it matters. The debate on how many scans footballers should receive in their careers -- Roberto Mancini wants more, Kenny Dalglish is happy with fewer -- is a knee-jerk reaction and a distraction from the facts.

What happened to Fabrice Muamba last Saturday was tragic. The notion that a footballer could suffer a cardiac arrest and be so close to death while playing is deeply upsetting. But the 23-year-old had already received at least three scans in his career -- the most recent as part of Bolton's pre-season preparations -- so extra screenings are clearly not the answer.

The vast expense of screening all 5,000 professional footballers -- twice a year as Mancini suggests -- seems unjustified when you examine the statistics. The charity Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY) say that 12 people under the age of 35 die per year from an undiagnosed heart condition.

That's always going to be 12 too many, but it is also a tiny number from the general population. That may sound harsh after the distressing television images we saw at White Hart Lane, but we must keep things in perspective.

If cardiac arrest in the professional game was a serious, widespread concern then you can bet your bottom dollar that football's insurance companies would be fretting about it. But they don't even require a heart scan to be completed for every professional signing. Indeed, most of my screenings have come as a result of playing for England -- Uefa and Fifa demand every player to be scanned ahead of a major tournament. But in my club career it is a very different story. While I've changed clubs six times, five of those moves involving a £1m or more transfer fee, I did not receive a heart scan at each medical despite undergoing stringent tests in other areas. When moving from West Ham to Manchester City, I remember there being a problem with my insurance after I sustained an injury in 2003 -- for 18 months I was uninsured on that knee just in case it failed again.

Insurance companies are not stupid, they do not take risks. It will be interesting to see whether they change their requirements now, but in the past they clearly did not view heart screenings as a significant requirement.

The PFA's Gordon Taylor has admitted that the union spends £300,000 a year on heart scans, if they were to increase the depth and breadth of this programme to meet Mancini's requirements they would be looking at a bill of around £3m a year, I am told. Apparently in Italy that bill is picked up by the Italian government, the legacy of the former Perugia footballer Renato Curi who died during a Serie A match against Juventus in 1977, but I cannot see the British public being happy about footing the bill. Even for the English national game that is a lot of money to be shelling out to screen for a rare defect using technology that cannot always provide an accurate picture. Surely footballers can use their own money to pay for extra heart scans if they are concerned. That's what they do if they are concerned about any other disease or illness -- cancer, say, a huge killer among men with plenty of examples of professional footballers who have been struck by the disease. And yet there is no call for football to screen players for cancer.

Instead of mass hysteria and media hype, I suggest we quietly do our sums. Scans did not make a difference to Fabrice's life, medical staff did. That is largely down to the Premier League ruling that club doctors must be on the bench and trained in life-saving techniques. The course costs £400 and should be refreshed every two years. At present that ruling does not cover the rest of the football league, which seems a great shame when you do the maths. An annual bill of £3m to screen all professional footballers twice yearly versus £36,800 for club doctors at all 92 professional clubs to be sent on a life-saving training course. To me that's a no-brainer.

The call to introduce CPR training for schoolchildren, however, does seem a good one. When I was at school I witnessed a teacher suffering a massive heart attack in the car park and, not having a clue what to do, did nothing while others ran to help. Thankfully, first aid is included in the education of academy players. I know because I attended a course with a bunch of them while doing my coaching badges.


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