'Time for football to care about welfare as much as winning?'


The 2018-19 Premier League season begins on Friday evening – when Manchester United host Leicester City at 20:00 BST

The sense of anticipation at the start of a new football season is a familiar one, with so much about to unfold.

And as ever, there seems to be as much at stake off the pitch as there is on it.

For those in charge of English football, the next few months are crucial; decisions on the potential sale of Wembley and whether to bid to host the 2030 World Cup, further trials of VAR, the appointment of a replacement for outgoing Premier League supremo Richard Scudamore and devising new regulations for agents.

Potentially most significant of all however, will be the findings of the Football Association’s independent inquiry into the historical child sex abuse scandal. Due to be published in the autumn, barrister Clive Sheldon’s report will highlight the failings that enabled abusers to prey on children in youth football in the past.

The subject of Sheldon’s long investigation is the most obvious example of an area of the game that is now in sharper focus than ever before; player welfare.

This is a very broad issue, incorporating everything from safeguarding, anti-discrimination, duty of care towards academy trainees and those rejected by academies, through to mental health and the management of head trauma and other injuries.

Progress is being made in several of these areas. Sheldon will give the FA a list of recommendations designed to strengthen protocols to protect youngsters in the game.

After years of delay, the FA and Professional Footballers’ Association have jointly funded research into the links between heading and dementia. The FA has committed to introducing a new whistle-blowing policy in the wake of the controversy that saw Mark Sampson sacked as England women’s manager following evidence of “inappropriate and unacceptable” behaviour with female players.

And awareness of mental health issues in the sport has also been raised by high-profile players like Aaron Lennon and Danny Rose speaking out about the depression they have suffered.

But many believe much more still needs to happen.

Until now, the challenge of athlete welfare has been more closely associated with Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic sports, with a spate of bullying scandals. With concern over whether its ‘no compromise’ approach had created a ‘win at all costs’ mentality, funding agency UK Sport vowed to improve its culture, and beef up the British Athletes’ Commission.

But it is increasingly clear that football is not immune from such concerns.

In the past two years there have been high-profile allegations of bullying at the academies of Arsenal and Newcastle United.

Meanwhile, a study by the Guardian