How clubs are using a gap in the rules to allow them to ignore young players’ injuries



By Tony Attwood

Can we have competition in football without rules?   Well, obviously not.  If you have ever dipped into our companion publication “The History of Arsenal” website you may well know just how many times Arsenal were accused by the rest of the league, and/or the media of breaking the rules. 

One such example comes with Arsenal’s fixed their promotion in 1919.   That was such a huge story it took us about eight articles on the Arsenal History website to unravel it all: (there is an index at the foot of the article here if you are interested).

So we’ve been arguing for clearer rules which are monitored and kept, for years.  But without too much effect.

However, there has been something of a move in the right direction with the Premier League getting very involved in club over-spending, although that too is coming under attack with the propagation of the view that any restraints on spending in football are an attack on ambition and the freedom of football clubs to grow and develop.

And the problem here is that for most of its life in England, professional football has dealt (or often not dealt with) issues as they come along, rather than actually working out any way of dealing with them overall.

Take the issue of the injury of young players.   If you ever look into such a thing you will find a number of references to Osgood-Schlatter disease.  That is a condition that causes pain and swelling below the knee joint and which is often found in young footballers (and indeed other athletes).  It comes about when there is a lot of jumping and/or running – which pretty much describes football.

Overall, about 10% of children ages 12 to 15 experience Osgood-Schlatter disease, but it may affect up to 20% of adolescent athletes, including of course footballers. In most cases, symptoms of Osgood-Schlatter disease develop gradually as a result of repeated stress on the patellar tendon. Less often, the condition is caused by a single trauma to the knee.

If untreated Osgood-Schlatter disease can wreck a young player’s career and cause difficulties for the rest of his life.  And yet, Science Direct estimates that 80% of elite youth footballers had no time off from playing despite symptoms.  Which effectively means they are wrecking their future career, and ability to exercise properly once their football career is over, by not getting treating for the disease when they get it as a youth player.

What happens in fact is, the young players’ teams kept on playing the young men despite their medical condition, until they couldn’t play them anymore, and then the club cast them aside.

Now that raises the question, why on earth would they do that?

The answer sadly is both simple and tragic.   A young player with Osgood-Schlatter disease needs to stop playing immediately and rest.   But the clubs have teams that have games planned week by week and they want their best players on the pitches.   Plus we are talking about players aged 10 to 16 here, and those youngsters desperately want to play, so it is common for them to try and hide their condition.

The clubs are of course acting in loco parentis when overseeing training and it is up to them to monitor the players, have them medically examined, keep full medical records, and stop the youngsters playing when they are injured.   The kids might try and cover up the injury but the coaches and training staff have to be aware of that.

So do they do this?   Well, there is disturbing evidence that many clubs absolutely do not.  Indeed in one case I have been made aware of a club that was accused of not taking proper care of a youngster, when asked for the medical records, the club said they were lost.

That of course is the most obvious get-out of all time.   It’s like the barrister in the courtroom asking, “Where were you on the night of the 15th?” to which the reply is “I don’t remember.” 

Yet football clubs get away with this as there is just one set of medical records, they are held by the club, and if they show any inconvient fact, the club claims it has lost them.

So if a player is suffering from the long-term effects of Osgood Slatters, allegedly “lost” medical records mean there is no evidence that the club knew about it, and no evidence then that they deliberately played the player despite knowing of the injury.

Now the way around this is dead simple.   All medical records should have duplicate copies filed with the FA, and all medical staff working in association with a club should be told that they must send a digital duplicate of each report to a central registry wherein it can be automatically filed and indexed, and be ready for any time when there is a subsequent dispute.  Failure to do that means medical staff lose their licence and the club loses 20 points.

That is dead simple and easy to do, but it is not done, and so we should ask, “Why is this simple protection of children not in place?”

And the answer seems to be: because the clubs don’t want it, and there is no organisation willing or able to bring the clubs under control.

Which, considering we are talking about children, really is pretty horrific.

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