You can listen to the audio version of this article.
Following a difficult watch last week where former Premier League striker Chris Sutton spoke on BBC Breakfast about the recent loss of his father to dementia, both FifPro and the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) announced this week that they have written to football lawmakers International Football Association Board (IFAB) requesting implementing temporary concussion substitutes. With the Football Association (FA) having introduced permanent concussion substitutes across both the men’s and women’s game in February of this year, there are still aspects of this new ruling that does not sit right.
Given the ever-increasing reports of former footballers suffering the negative consequences linked with concussion, as well as serious cases of head injury commonplace in today’s game, it is surprising that governing bodies are most interested in preventing the exploitation of new laws rather than player safety. The current laws allow each team two permanent concussion substitutes in addition to their three regular substitutes. There are two problems here. If a concussion substitute is permanent as it currently is, teams become reluctant to use this, as we have seen with West Ham’s Issa Diop and Sheffield United’s George Baldock, who were both allowed to continue playing before later being substituted.
Clubs either have a choice of removing the player while they are assessed and disadvantaging themselves by continuing the match with 10 players, or gambling and keeping the player on, who could have a serious injury and putting themselves and others at more harm. Additionally, limiting concussion substitutes to two per team highlights how IFAB are more concerned of the potential tactical repercussions rather than the safety of players. Temporary concussion substitutes provide the simplest resolution. They would allow for substitutes to temporarily replace an injured teammate, and if given the all clear, the player who sustained a head injury could return to the pitch, removing any disadvantage of substituting the injured player as well as protecting them.
As the implementation of permanent concussion substitutes has been fundamentally flawed, careful thought is required for the next change in this protocol. In a sport that is widely reactive, especially when it comes to player safety, it is time to be proactive and ensure any change to concussion substitutes is the correct one that does not require further amendments. I would suggest two main changes here. Firstly, independent doctors should be assessing injured players to prevent any conflict of interest, or pressure from coaching staff to sway this verdict. The doctors could be an addition to the impartial matchday officials. Secondly, there is currently a limit of seven named substitutes for any given game. This limit of substitutes is an outdated law, and still exists out of tradition more than anything. But with its steady incline over the years from one to the now seven named substitutes, there is the possibility that this could hinder teams.
Although unlikely, it is possible that two players are to be substituted due to concussion. With many football teams having three goalkeepers, naming one in the starting eleven, one on the bench, and one outside of the matchday squad, what happens if both goalkeepers sustain concussion? This could be applied to any position, and if my first suggestion of independent doctors is not enforced, the position of the players that have not been used at the point of injury could influence the club doctors’ diagnosis. Therefore, my second suggestion would be to remove this limit on matchday substitutes, naming a starting eleven and the remainder of the squad being an available substitute.
The hesitancy of altering the laws of the game regarding player safety is staggering given this new era of persistent law changes to general gameplay. Although frustrating for the spectator, there is scope for trial and error with the introduction of VAR and law changes that surround that, but we must not take the same approach when it comes to concussion substitutes. Permanent concussion substitutes are not working and will not work. Changing them to temporary concussion substitutes will work, but only if careful consideration is given to other factors involved, such as how clubs could potentially be disadvantaged and who is assessing the injured player.
Daniel Walker is a PhD researcher and a graduate teaching assistant at Edge Hill University.