A HEADING ban in football training for children up to the end of primary school has been introduced with immediate effect in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The three football associations issued a statement on Monday morning confirming changes to their heading guidance, which come in the wake of the FIELD study which showed former footballers were three and a half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease than age-matched members of the general population.

The changes stated there would be no heading at all in the "foundation phase" - primary school children - and a graduated approach to heading in training in under-12s to under-16s football.

There will be no change in terms of heading in matches, taking into consideration the extremely limited number of headers which actually occur in youth matches.

The FIELD study did not state that heading a ball was the cause of the increased prevalence of neurodegenerative conditions among footballers, but the decision to update the guidelines has been taken to "mitigate against any potential risks", the FA said in a statement.

FA chief executive Mark Bullingham said: "This updated heading guidance is an evolution of our current guidelines and will help coaches and teachers to reduce and remove repetitive and unnecessary heading from youth football.

"Our research has shown that heading is rare in youth football matches, so this guidance is a responsible development to our grassroots coaching without impacting the enjoyment that children of all ages take from playing the game."

The associations said the guidance had been produced in parallel with UEFA's medical committee, which is seeking to produce Europe-wide guidance later this year.

Irish FA chief executive Patrick Nelson said: "Our football committee has reviewed and approved the new guidelines.

"As an association we believe this is the right direction of travel and are confident it will be good for the game, and those who play it."

Scottish FA chief executive Ian Maxwell, said: "While it is important to re-emphasise there is no research to suggest that heading in younger age groups was a contributory factor in the findings of the FIELD study into professional footballers, nevertheless Scottish football has a duty of care to young people, their parents and those responsible for their well-being throughout youth football.

"The updated guidelines are designed to help coaches remove repetitive and unnecessary heading from youth football in the earliest years, with a phased introduction at an age group considered most appropriate by our medical experts.

"It is important to reassure that heading is rare in youth football matches, but we are clear that the guidelines should mitigate any potential risks."

Professor Willie Stewart, the lead academic on the FIELD study, welcomed the move but believes ultimately the game's governing bodies must go further.

He said: "I'm encouraged to see these changes being made in FA, SFA and NIFA youth football.

"A lot more research is needed to understand the factors contributing to increased risk of neurodegenerative disease in footballers. Meanwhile it is sensible to act to reduce exposure to the only recognised risk factor so far.

"As such, measures to reduce exposure to unnecessary head impacts and risk of head injury in sport are a logical step.

"I would, however, like to see these proposals introduced as mandatory, rather than voluntary as present, and a similar approach to reduce heading burden adopted in the wider game of football, not just in youth football."

The FA's head of grassroots coaching Les Howie said: "When the FIELD study was published in October 2019, it felt like an important milestone for our game. The FA played a crucial role in supporting the study, having joint-funded the research alongside the PFA, and since it was published we've not stopped thinking about exactly what the research tells us and what the best steps are to take to support the game, from grassroots level to the top.

"Naturally there were calls for heading to be banned, following the publication of the study. This was entirely understandable.

"Heading the ball is a unique aspect of the way football is played, so this needed to be given much deliberation and consideration, notably with the support of our independently-chaired FA Research Taskforce.

"However, we do need to be mindful that the FIELD study did not show that heading the ball was the cause to the link with incidence of degenerative neurocognitive disease in their sample group of ex-professional footballers who were born between 1900 and 1976. And, as a result, there was no evidence to suggest that heading the ball, at any level of the game, should be banned.

"The research shows that on average there are only around two headers per game in children's football, which shows that heading the ball is an infrequent occurrence at that level of the game."

Howie added: "Of course, there'll be some people who will accuse us of being over cautious. We hope that over time and when new research is undertaken and further evidence emerges that this will be the case.

"However, in the interim, we believe that these are common sense, practical and graduated guidance."

Dawn Astle, who has campaigned for restrictions on heading at all levels of the game and for steps to be taken to minimise the impact of concussion injuries, welcomed the news as an important first step.

Astle's father Jeff was a professional footballer who died in 2002 of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which the coroner ruled had been caused by repeated heading of a football.

She told the PA news agency: "We're all really pleased - it's sensible following the results of the FIELD study.

"We must take early steps to avoid exposing children's brains to risk of trauma and by saying there's no heading in training for primary school children is a really sensible way to make the game we all love safer for all those involved."

Astle believes it is crucial restrictions are also introduced for over-18s and even at senior first-team level.

"It has to be across the whole of the game," she said.

"I read in the guidelines that it said that the FIELD study did not state the cause of the increased risk of dementia, but 99 per cent of people would say it's either head injury or repeated heading of the ball and the cumulative effects of that which are causing it.

"When my dad died, the footballing authorities said they wanted more research and more evidence - now they've got it. Absolutely they should be seen to be acting on it.

"For over-18s now there certainly should be some guidelines in for training. I've always believed and my mum has always believed that my dad's problems and what ended up killing him was the amount of heading of the ball he did in training.

"I believe it's the cumulative effect of that which is ultimately killing the players."

Dr Carol Routledge, director of research at Alzheimer's Research UK, said: "The recent FIELD study highlighted an increased dementia risk for ex-professional footballers in Scotland.

"While we don't yet know the cause or causes of this increased risk, limiting unnecessary heading in children's football is a practical step that minimises possible risks, ensuring that football remains as safe as possible in all forms.

"We need to see more research in order to unpick any link between football and dementia risk but until we know more, making sure the nation's best-loved game is played as safely as possible is a sensible approach.

"Only through sustained investment in dementia research will we keep people connected to their families, their worlds and themselves for longer."