Our director of football development, James Kendall, talks about the next steps in the youth football heading trial, which was introduced in matches across U12 level and below at the start of the 2022-23 season.
Q: James, can you please update us on how the youth football heading trial has gone this season?
JK: We were really pleased with the engagement around the first phase of the trial and the quality of the findings that emerged from it. At the start of the 2022-23 season, we invited leagues and competitions across the country to take part in the season-long trial, and it was great to see so many get involved. The County FA network, leagues, clubs and schools have played an invaluable role in helping to implement the trial, and I’d personally like to thank them all for the time and dedication that they have put in to support it.
Q: How did the trial come about in the first place?
JK: In order to introduce any trial that involves changing or adapting the laws of the game, you need to get prior approval from the International Football Association Board [IFAB]. We had very positive dialogue with the IFAB from the start, led by our chief executive Mark Bullingham, to set out how we would like to implement a heading trial in grassroots youth football. Following these conversations, we then made a formal application to introduce a trial to remove deliberate heading in matches across U12 level and below, which was then approved on a standard two-year trial basis.
Q: Why did the FA want to introduce a heading trial in youth football and to remove deliberate heading of the ball?
JK: There were a number of reasons why we wanted to introduce the trial. We would like to help mitigate against any potential risks that may be linked to heading the ball, including injuries from head-to-head, elbow to head, or head to ground contact. We feel that it’s important to take a cautious approach at this level of the game whilst ongoing research continues in this area. Additionally, we also felt that it was important to bring matches across these age groups in line with our current heading guidance for training, which recommends that heading is removed or restricted at this level. We also continue to believe that reducing heading at this level can help to support the development of young players who are learning to improve their technical ability with the ball at their feet.
Q: How many people took part in the trial during the 2022-23 season?
JK: To date, we’ve had 60 leagues taking part in the trial across England, involving over 83,000 youth players, which has been great to see. It has been a huge team effort and it’s been a landmark trial for English and international football. We are grateful to everyone involved from the start, including players, coaches, parents, guardians, volunteers, referees, leagues, clubs and administrators.
Q: Now that we are coming to the end of the 2022-23 season, what are the next steps for the trial?
JK: We have confirmed that the trial will continue for its second year during the 2023-24 season as per the approval provided by IFAB. We are currently communicating with the County FA network, leagues, clubs and schools to let them know how they can get involved and will look to slightly adapt the trial next season to help improve the matchplay experience.
Q: Were there any learnings from the first season, and will you be introducing any changes or updates to the trial next season?
JK: Absolutely. Throughout the season, we have been engaging with everyone involved in the trial to collect significant amounts of feedback and match play data so that we can get a comprehensive understanding of how it’s working. Based upon the feedback we’ve received from the first year, it’s clear that the restart protocol from within the penalty area had too great an impact on the game. Therefore, for the 2023-24 season, we will be testing the following alternative restart laws, with the change in bold to help highlight the relevant amendment:
Deliberately heading the ball is an offence punishable by an indirect free kick. This will also mean the introduction of indirect free-kicks within mini-soccer for this circumstance. The indirect free kick is taken at the point where the ball was deliberately headed, except: Where a player deliberately heads the ball within their own penalty area, the referee will stop the game and restart with an indirect free-kick to the opposition from the nearest side line of the penalty area where the offence took place.
Previously, where a player of the defending team deliberately heads the balls in their own penalty area, the indirect free kick is taken from the penalty mark. We are pleased to make this change following the feedback that we received.
Q: How can County FAs, Leagues and Clubs get involved in the trial for the 2023-24 season?
JK: We would encourage as many leagues, clubs and schools as possible to take part in the second year of the trial next season – and the details of how they can sign up have been sent to the County FAs and the Leagues. We truly believe that this trial is helping to positively shape the game at this level, and we look forward to working with them during the second phase of the trial in the 2023-24 season.