An orthopaedic surgeon at Leicester University is seeking a Pounds 150,000 Medical Research Council grant for a project he believes could save the National Health Service at least Pounds 3.5 million a year.
For the past two years John Hardy has been investigating all the city's patients with shinbone fractures. He discovered that well over a third were footballers, and that football injuries were the commonest cause of a broken leg.
Most players were injured during local league or county games, and more than 80 per cent were playing on grass, and wearing suitable footwear and shinguards.
On the basis of the number of injuries in the Leicester area, he estimates that around 2,500 footballers are treated by the NHS each year, with health care and statutory sick pay totalling at least Pounds 7.7 million.
"The majority of injuries were caused by impact during a tackle -- these guys were being kicked on the shin. Most thought they were in a fair tackle, although 13 per cent thought they had been fouled and only 3.5 per cent of opponents were sent off or penalised, so there could be some improvement on the refereeing side," Mr Hardy said.
One solution, he believes, could be a new design of shinguard. There has been little testing of existing guards, and the standards they must meet relate to manufacture rather than performance.
Normal shinguards are only designed to protect against grazes and bruises rather than a direct blow, while rigid plastic guards only transfer the shock of the tackle to the knees or the ankles, said Mr Hardy.
The grant would enable Leicester's departments of orthopaedic surgery and engineering to develop a computerised test rig that can replicate the conditions of a leg-breaking tackle, and test different designs and different materials for shinguards.
Mr Hardy believes that using modern composite materials, which would absorb energy on the same principle as a bullet-proof jacket, could prevent at least half the injuries. The materials would have to be reasonably cheap, since the shinguard would have to be discarded after a heavy impact.
The Home Office police scientific development branch is also interested in the project as a means of testing police body armour.