Disability in Football.
One of the very few downsides to the sacking of Andy Gray by Sky last month was that we have had to put up with more of Alan “Human Mogadon” Smith in the commentary box. A massive positive has been the surge of interest in women’s football and women in football in general. For a number of people though it goes further than that. The excellent Dominic Pollard has used the furore as a catalyst for his work on racism in modern football and the media explosion has made me consider as few issues a lot closer to home.
“What do they know? They’ve never played the game.” is a retort that I have heard time and again when footballers want to respond to criticism from members of the media. What the disgruntled ‘star’ means is “they’ve never played professionally”. The majority of people reading this will most probably have played for a school team or the one of the local sides as kids. The ever-increasing five-a-side market means that people can get together after work for a game too although some of the youthful energy might not be as prominent as it once was. At some point or another most of my friends will have participated in a competitive football match. I, on the other hand, haven’t.
I suffer from cerebral palsy. Suffer is too strong a word really. I have had CP my entire life so it isn’t anything I have had to adjust to. I haven’t had to learn how to manage without things. I have a lovely family and I am very pleased with how my life has turned out. Until recently I thought that the only thing I’d missed out on was dancing, (I harbour a not so secret wish to be able to move like Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing but that’s for another time). It occurred to me that I had never really been involved in a proper competitive game of football. At school I had turned out for various teams but that was more to do with the fact that I kept turning up for practice and the PE teacher thought “we’d better let the poor sod play in a match”. The games were played around me and whilst I might have pictured myself as a rampaging left-sided dynamo the only touches of the ball I got were accidental. A bit like a 14-year-old Wayne Bridge. Soon after that the lure of sneaky cigarettes and girls, (where the touches were again, purely accidental) took over and my playing career ended. I do myself a bit of a disservice here. I wasn’t too bad at football. I spent hours in the garden perfecting a Cruyff turn, my version anyway. My biggest problems were, and are, balance and kicking a ball a decent distance. Now, if I were playing against others with CP I’d be a veritable Luka Modric, (a tubby one but let’s take baby steps for now). All I needed to do was to find a few people with CP who fancied a kick about and I could show off my tragically underrated abilities. Unfortunately for me they had already started and to add insult to injury they were much, much better than me.
Ignorance on my part mean I wasn’t aware that cerebral palsy football is a thriving sport with an FA backed England team that has been running for over 10 years. There are over 100 clubs across the UK catering for people with CP and other disabilities. Many of these are linked to professional clubs. Big names like Manchester United and Aston Villa run disabled teams as do smaller clubs like Forest Green Rovers. At international level there are European championships, (where Australia seem to have encroached on another continent’s governing body) a World Cup and the Paralympics. The England CP team recently trained with Heurelho Gomes and Steven Pienaar at Tottenham’s Spurs Lodge training ground. There are a wealth of opportunities for people out there with disabilities who want to play the game and over the next few weeks I will be writing a series of pieces looking at CP football in detail from grass-roots all the way up to the full England team. Whilst I am unlikely to get a call from England coach Lyndon Lynch any time soon there are plenty of people who might and I think it’s about time we took notice of them.