Oldies pay price for heavy balls

I remember it as though it were yesterday. It was like an eclipse of the sun laid on just for me. There I was, all 3ft 8ins of me, in my first pair of studded boots, communing with nature as the game ebbed and flowed around me, when a man’s voice suddenly rose above the shrill infant babble, “Head it, Murray!”.

Startled, I looked up, just in time to see a heavy black orb descending from a clear blue sky like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. Within a split second, first it blotted out my vision and then it snuffed out my senses.

Now, I have ever been a forgetful fellow, increasingly so as anno Domini takes its toll, but have always put this down to a fondness for real ale, so called to distinguish it from what the big brewers would prefer us to drink. My diagnosis would accord with medical opinion, which holds that alcohol kills off the brain cells one by one, starting with those that store information, working backwards towards others that coordinate thought and speech, and finishing with those that determinate which foot is placed in front of the other.

But now I must revise my opinion. Could it be that my amnesia is owed not to countless hours spent over countless pints, fuming about a world full of appalling atrocity, and none worse than Edwina Currie, but rather to that childhood moment on the playing field of Osidge Primary School, when half a ton of stitched and leather-bound bladder fell on my head, sending my National Health specs rocketing past the helpless custodian of the uprights? It would seem so.

For no less an authority than Billy McPhail, the legendary star of Queen’s Park, Clyde, and Celtic in the far-off days before a hairdryer was the most important item in a player’s kitbag, believes that heading the old leather football has left him at the age of 70 with a memory like a sieve. He is currently appealing against a refusal of the Government’s Benefits Agency to grant him industrial injuries disablement payments. Such footballing luminaries as Sir Tom Finney and Tommy Docherty, both of whom played when the balls were leaden, testify to the damaging effect of cranium meeting sodden leather.

Of course, McPhail’s case and mine are not quite the same. During a long career, he headed the ball on countless occasions, usually deliberately. I headed but once, and the manoeuvre was entirely passive. However, I was but a child and it is well known that the infant skull is soft and vulnerable. I, too, may well have a case for compensation.

But it is not easy to bring an action years after the event, especially when the product that caused the hurt is no longer made. Even so, in our litigious age when everyone is a victim, I would not like to own a brand whose alleged victims might at any time come forward waving their claims for sufficient compensation to buy a Vauxhall Vectra and a holiday in Barbados.

Who is to say, and this is all pure conjecture, that there is not at this very minute an octogenarian who puts down his chronic indigestion to dollops of Monk & Glass’s custard swallowed during the course of a long and uncomplaining marriage?

There must be many a citizen no longer in the first flush of middle-age whose niggling aches and pains (or, in legal parlance, unremitting agony) cannot be attributed to some half-forgotten (but now you mention it, dear solicitor, plainly recalled) brush with a Ruberoid bath mat, an Armitage washbasin, and Linowaxed floor. Is their suffering to pass unassuaged by a payment which, though but a drop in the corporate bucket, could to them make all the difference between lonely evenings at home and whooping it up on a Saga cruise round the Med with that busty widow from number 17?

In the right hands, a can of Brasso is not a threat. But applied overzealously to a stair-rod, in the days when such things existed, it could spell disaster for the bedroom-bound sleepyhead who, with cup of steaming Ovaltine in hand, misses his Church’s slippered footing and puts his back out on the return journey to the Johnson’s waxed parquet and from there slides, scalded, into the wooden embrace of the waiting Parker Knoll hall chair. Plenty of likely defendants there. Nasty thing, sciatica, m’lud. And often attributable to an incident, perhaps of many years ago, in which the seed of future tribulation was planted only to lay dormant until awakened by a injuries compensation lawyer’s advertisement.

All the same, is it too much to hope that Mr McPhail will succeed in his claim? Those old leather balls were extremely hard, as I know to my cost, and in those days it was thought quite normal to head them. His case, however, should avoid all mention of the modern game, some of whose players, though having headed nothing but the lightweight ball, exhibit worrying symptoms. Examples such as Vinnie Jones, Ian Wright, and the now retired Eric Cantona could plant in a tribunal’s mind the notion that those who are drawn to play football are congenitally at one with folk whose brains have been battered by baseball bats. Mr McPhail deserves better than that.


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