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16th Dec 2020

Progress at last, but IFAB’s concussion sub trial is no giant leap forward

Simon Lloyd

IFAB have confirmed they will trial permanent concussion substitutes – ignoring calls to introduce temporary subs instead

Not even a month ago, you wondered when – no, if – football would ever learn its lesson. Mere minutes after his sickening clash of heads with Raul Jimenez, one that saw the Wolves striker stretchered off with a fractured skull, David Luiz, his head bleeding from the same impact, was bandaged up and passed fit to carry on playing. The incident had happened in the early stages of the game, yet Luiz, to the amazement of many, was only withdrawn at half-time.

The same weary, old debate followed: When, exactly, would football take decisive action when dealing with concussion injuries? How many more times would we be here, watching a professional footballer have his brain rattled around his skull with such obvious force, only to dust himself down and, with a slightly bleary-eyed expression on his face, carry on as normal?

Fast forward a few weeks and, at a glance, it seems that football is finally beginning to stir itself into something close to meaningful action. A statement released by International Football Association Board (IFAB) on Wednesday confirmed the approval of extensive trials with additional permanent substitutions for actual or suspected concussion as of January 2021. Put simply, players suspected of suffering from concussion will be permanently withdrawn from a match while their team are permitted to bring on a replacement.

To dismiss this as anything but progress would be unfair. After multiple high-profile reminders of why stricter protocols are required when dealing with head injuries, football’s authorities are finally dragging themselves closer to the examples set by other sports, and this can only be seen as a positive. It is difficult, however, to argue it is anywhere near enough.

While player welfare is at the core of the new substitution trial, IFAB also add that – theoretically, at least –  it will reduce the pressure on medical personnel to make quick assessments as to whether a player is fit enough to continue. On the surface, this sounds very sensible; in reality, it’s incredibly naive. Club medical staff are still being asked to make the same decision: whether or not a player should be removed from the game. In truth, very little of the pressure that comes with making that call – be it from the player, coaching staff or the environment – will be stripped away at all.

This is at the heart of the argument put forward by Headway, the brain injury charity. After years of campaigning for the introduction of concussion subs in football, they released a statement expressing their disappointment at IFAB’s announcement, again stressing the need for the introduction of temporary subs – not permanent.

“The key questions are how will players be assessed for suspected concussion, and how will decisions be made about whether they should be permanently removed?” asked Chief Executive, Peter McCabe.

“The benefit of a temporary concussion substitution is that it allows for the player to be assessed off the pitch, in a quiet, appropriate treatment room away from the heat of battle and the glare of players, officials, coaches and fans.

“We know how difficult it can be for club medics to make concussion assessments on or at the side of the pitch, particularly in such a short space of time or when there are language barriers.

“If these decisions continue to be made in the same way, it is very hard to see how player welfare will be improved.”

The new developments neatly sum up where football is. There is a recognition now that more needs to be done and, more importantly, tentative steps towards making lasting changes. While the willingness to address the matter should be applauded, the time taken to reach this juncture, and the sense that there is still far more to be done to make a genuine impact leaves a bitter taste.