Disability in Football: Part III
This piece first appeared here on In Bed With Maradona on 27.06.2011
As a parent I have found out the hard way that swearing around children isn’t the done thing. My daughter has repeated things she can only have learnt from either listening to me or watching The Sopranos. Bearing in mind that programmes on Sky Atlantic don’t really interest her I only have myself to blame. That’s why on Saturday I managed to turn what would have been a more than audible “Jesus ****ing Christ!” into a slightly more palatable “jeez-a-loo!”
I was at The London Soccerdome in Greenwich watching a football development day for children between the ages of 7 and 18 and I had just seen a goal that had it been scored on an Arsenal academy pitch the coaches could have put their feet up for the rest of the week. 4 or 5 neat passes finished off with a shot that would have made Thomas Hitzlsperger proud. The goalscorer had impressed me throughout the day. Fast, quick feet and the low centre of gravity that has been an aid to some of the world’s greatest players. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. There are always one or two players that stand out in any group of boys but every single lad there amazed me so this was different. This was cerebral palsy football and it was unlike anything I’d imagined.
Some of you may have read my other pieces on disability in football, (if not you can read part 1 and part 2) and will know that I have CP. This whole idea began as an exercise to see how easy it would be for someone like me to get involved in competitive football. Through the course of my research I have discovered a whole world that I wasn’t aware of and I have had the chance to talk to some very interesting people along the way. One of those people is Dermot Dolan, National Sports Development Officer for the charity CP Sport. Dermot was kind enough to talk to me about the work that he does and one of his passions within the job was actually being able to travel around the UK and provide a platform for people with CP to be involved in sports. In terms of football this meant a series of development days where qualified coaches would come and work with children who, in a lot of cases, were being overlooked by the school sports system. Dermot mentioned to me that he had a development day planned in June and was gracious enough to let me come down and see first hand the work that he does.
One of the things that occurred to me as I was travelling down to London was that in living memory I can’t actually remember spending time in the company of anyone else with CP. I suppose I had always viewed having CP as a bit of triviality and assumed, wrongly, that being around other sufferers would somehow descend into some horrendous pity party. You have to remember that I can’t see myself walk so in my mind’s eye I’m strolling down the street like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever rather than awkwardly lurching from one foot to the other with all the grace of recently tranquillised rhino. I was never regarded as any different by my friends and family as a child and I think that almost made me forget I had CP. To be around others with it would have been a tacit admission of its presence. All of this made me curious to see how it would feel to finally meet a large group of people in the same boat as myself.
My first impression of the Soccerdome was that it seemed to be a creepy shrine to David Beckham but then I remembered it’s the site for his academy rather than being the world’s worst hideaway for a giant stalker. Dermot, unsurprisingly, turned out to be as nice a guy in person as he was on the phone. He foolishly agreed to let me help with registrations and it was an early chance to get chatting to some of the families in attendance. One of the many heartening things to see was that of the all the clubs being represented by replica shirts, Spurs were one of the most popular. Personal bias aside though, I saw boys from all over the country showing off support for a wide range of teams. From Fulham to Southend and Forest to Everton there was proof that the “Big Four” don’t have a monopoly on the next generation of football fans.
One player registering was Barney whom I had already heard about a few months previously. When I first chatted to Dermot about CP football he put me in touch with a lady called Jo who is Barney’s Mum. Jo was so helpful and took the time to send me an email chronicling her experiences of finding a place for her son to play football. Barney suffers from right-sided hemiplegia and when he was just three weeks old the doctors told Jo that Barney would never walk and may not ever be able to sit up unaided. As with so many parents in this situation Jo resolved that this didn’t have to be the case and as she puts it “almost 11 years on my son is not only sitting up but running around a
football field”. It is also testament to the fortitude of Jo and her husband Steve that their son is able to play on a regular basis.
Like myself Barney enjoyed playing football with his friends but as they got older and the games got more serious he would find himself being picked last for teams and people would never pass the ball to him. Coupled with educational difficulties that CP has also caused I can completely understand why Jo refers to this as “a very dark time for Barney”. Jo and Steve tried to see if Barney could play in teams of a younger age group but the FA blocked this as it against youth football rules. In 2009 the family were put in touch with Bingham Town Youth football club who run a pan-disability team, The Outlaws, “From the very first session at Bingham, Barney was transformed, for the first
time he met boys that looked like him and knew what it felt like to be him, we
couldn’t wipe the smile from his face, he had a team and new friends. To top it
all in his first season of the CP tournaments he was 4th highest goal scorer and
he didn’t even play the full season. He was elated”.
Bingham Outlaws appeared to have brought at least half of their CP players to London and it is clear that it isn’t just Barney that the team has helped. All of the players seemed to be benefitting from the regular training sessions and games. One of the things that really stood out to me was that a lot of the boys seemed so much stronger than I was at a similar age. A lot of the parents that I spoke to mentioned that football has increased the physical and mental wellbeing of their children.
Despite the good work of clubs like Bingham there were a lot of boys at the Soccerdome who don’t have the good fortune to be able to play regularly with other CP footballers. I spoke to a very outgoing and confident 14-year-old called Ben. Ben had travelled down with his parents from Peterborough and it was a new experience for him. Ben explained to me that he had never really played disability football much. It became apparent that as with Barney, Ben’s chances to play able-bodied football had been stymied. Only getting to play for the school team when they were 3 goals up or down with 10 minutes to go seemed a constant theme in Ben’s world. I have absolutely no doubts that the teachers and coaches in his school have their hearts in the right place. However, sending on a lad when you’re 3-1 down only to take him off again 3 minutes later because your team converts a penalty is disheartening to say the least. Even more frustrating is the fact that Ben is a very good player. Even without the use of his left arm he put on a goal-keeping masterclass that impressed everyone watching. I’ve seen boys of Ben’s age playing for my local youth team who haven’t got a 10th of his ability but it seems there are still many misconceptions about cerebral palsy.
It is incredibly frustrating to think that a lot of people in Ben and Barney’s position are missing out on the chance to play football. It is an issue that so many like Dermot are working tirelessly to remedy. It is also important to remember though that events like the development day are an enormous force for good in the lives of the families involved. CP Sport are organising a festival of football in September and I have already told Dermot I’ll be there. It isn’t with a view to doing more research or to interview people. It is now something I would be utterly thrilled to spend my spare time involved in. I had arrived as an interested spectator and I left feeling as though I was part of something amazing.