Ink & A Stick

The ramblings of a man who should know better.

Archive for the category “Disability in Football”

Disability In Football Part 4: What next for CP Football?

In the last twelve months I have written three pieces about disability in football. The whole project began life as a study into how easy it would be for someone with cerebral palsy like myself to play competitive football. Very quickly I discovered that there already existed a huge CP football community. From an FA backed England national squad to grass-roots teams popping up all over the country, there appeared to be something for everyone. Along the way I have met and spoken to some incredible people. From Jeff Davis, the FA’s national manager for disability football to parents who are coming to terms with their child’s condition. The one constant throughout this series of blogs though has been Dermot Dolan. Dermot is the National Sports Development Officer for the charity CP Sport and he has been a great help not just to me but to the large numbers of families looking to get children with cerebral palsy into competitive sport.

I met with Dermot back in September at one of the CP Sport football development days in London. Just prior to that Dermot had explained that the charity would be taking a back seat as far as CP football went. CP Sport has always kept up dialogue with the FA over the best way to take the grass-roots CP game forwards. It had reached a point where the FA was genuinely concerned about maintaining a good level of interest in the lower reaches of the sport. Whilst it is safe to say that the FA’s heart has always been in the right place on matters of disability football they haven’t always been singing from the CP Sport hymn sheet.

The differences in opinions between CP Sport and the FA are entirely understandable. The FA exists, as far as disability football is concerned, to create a clear path for young players to go from local football to possibly playing for the national sides. CP Sport is run as a platform for people of all abilities to be able to participate. As a member of FIFA and UEFA the FA has to stick to strict guidelines set out by those organisations. Restrictions on mixing age and gender can tie the hands of the FA in some instances. They are in a position where they can’t be seen to be backing youth football where those rules are broken as it could lead to sanctions from those bodies above them.

In spite of these hurdles there is light at the end of the tunnel and CP Sport are now working with Andy Millington to try to bring back league football for CP players. Andy runs a cerebral palsy team in Yorkshire and one of his sons also plays on the FA regional development squad for the area. Andy contacted CP Sport with a view to getting a CP football league up and running again. There was a league in place until recently but due to  the aforementioned issues with the FA it stopped operating. I spoke to Dermot last week and he was kind enough to outline what Andy and CP Sport are aiming to achieve by working together.

From February next year it is hoped that there will be CP football development days run around the country. As part of these days there will be a chance for teams to play each other in a league format as well as having training sessions with FA registered coaches. When describing to me the interest in such events one thing was particularly evident, “people want leagues and the kids just want to play games. As soon as they get to the venues the first thing the children want to know is when they will get to play matches”. As a principle that sounds simple but due to the nature of CP Sport’s work with other athletes it can be difficult for them to run such sessions. Dermot explained to me how he hoped that these days would become a “parent owned initiative with financial backing from the charity”. Again, this sounds like a perfect solution but as with so many things in disability sport there are other factors to consider.

One of the most surprising things I discovered when I attended development days earlier in the year was the distances that families were prepared to travel to be involved. Indeed, Dermot has spoken to many of the parents of children wishing to play and they have reiterated this willingness. I asked Dermot how many people he expected to have at these events and he hoped that at their peak there would be around 100 players per day. In an ideal world this would be fantastic but there is still reticence from some parents to get their hopes up. There have been schemes for CP football in place in the past and these have been taken away, the next plan is then unveiled only to fizzle out again. Parents are getting to a point in some cases where they are not prepared to get the hopes of the children raised only to have them dashed again . As Dermot mentioned, it is all about “creating a good infrastructure” so that parents and carers can have complete faith in letting their children play.

It is hoped that by starting the new development days in February a domino effect will be created and it will lead to teams being set up all over the country. As it stands the FA regional CP squads are only providing players with 4 games per year. Aside from the fact that not all CP players will be selected for these squads there is a feeling that if more and more teams keep appearing then it will inspire others to start a local side. In turn, if there are more local teams obviously the player pool gets larger. More players means less need to mix ages and genders and this will hopefully result in FA backing as their regulations are adhered to. In the long-term Dermot has hopes that the FA regional squad events can be held on the same days and same venues as the CP Sport development programs. It would really give a chance for the young players to see a clear path for their own football progression.

An overriding hope for these days is that it will really push CP football on to another level of participation. The new development events will begin in an Olympic year and Great Britain will have a CP team at the Paralympics. It is important to give today’s young player the belief and support they need to become the next national team players. What is equally important though is that CP football is accessible to all who want to play the game. Able-bodied football caters to the entire spectrum of players. From Leo Messi all the way down to the kids in the park and the rotund goalkeeper from your local pub team. It is vitally important that people with cerebral palsy are offered the same opportunities. I have seen first hand the positive effect that playing football has had on many of these children’s lives and I would hate to see that curtailed in any way.

If you have any queries about the development days or the work that CP Sport does you can contact them here. I would like to thank all of the people who have helped me during the process of this series but most of all a huge thanks goes to Dermot Dolan. You’d struggle to meet a nicer man and the work he does for cerebral palsy sports as a whole is utterly phenomenal.


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.

Disability in Football: Part II

“I didn’t know England had a cerebral palsy football team.”

This is something I’ve heard a lot since publishing my first blog on disability in football. I must admit that I wasn’t aware of their existence either. However, a tiny amount of research yielded a lot of information on the subject proving that it’s more about ignorance on my part rather than clandestine secret societies.

International football started for CP sufferers in 1978 and is governed by Cerebral Palsy International Sport & Recreation Association, (CP-ISRA). CP-ISRA has modified the rules to make the game more accessible. These include shrinking the team sizes to 7-a-side and abolishing the offside law. One of the biggest facets of the game comes in its classification model. Players are split into four categories, C5, C6, C7 and C8. C5 team members are the most affected by cerebral palsy and C8 the least affected. To ensure fairness sides must field one C5/C6 player at all times and no more than two C8 players are allowed to be on one side at a time.

Discovering that there is an England CP team has been a bit a revelation for me. It’s been a while since I showed any interest in the able-bodied teams. John Terry is more likely to steal my parking space than evoke any feelings of national pride whilst the recent on and off the pitch antics of people like Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole make it hard to feel like they represent me as an Englishman. To find out that there is an England team filled with people like me who have very average lives but also happen to be fantastic footballers is almost a throwback to the clichéd days of going to the game on the bus with your favourite centre forward. This is a team worthy of our support.

As part of my research for this series I was lucky enough to talk to Jeff Davis. Mr Davis is the FA’s national manager for disability football and he explained how the FA had put in place a strategy to map a clear path for youngsters with CP to achieve the goal of representing England. Mr Davies spoke about how there is a chance for everyone to enjoy the game, “if people want to play, football can cope with any disability”.

Being the national manager for disability football means that Mr Davis is particularly interested in making sure talented CP players are aware of the opportunities available to them. The FA are committed to identifying talented youngsters within the school system. Once identified these players can then be made aware of the large network of teams and levels in which they can be involved. These range from small local sides, 34 county leagues, a national league with 8 regional teams and then on to the elite level with 8 regional centres of excellence, an England development squad and finally the full England team.

For the players talented enough to represent their country it can, as with so many sports, offer the prospect of visiting other nations and experiencing cultures they might not have otherwise had the chance to. England & Great Britain have had mixed fortunes in recent international tournaments. In last year’s European Championships England finished 6th out of 10 teams. Huge wins against Finland, (12-0) and Spain, (8-0) were matched with similar defeats to Rep. Ireland and the eventual winners Ukraine.

One of the most interesting things to come out of my research into CP football is the dominance of Ukraine in the sport. I asked Mr Davis why he thought Ukraine were so successful. Prior to the Beijing games in 2008 the FA had made a visit to a sports camp for disabled Ukrainian children being held on the Black Sea coast. 30,000 children had made the journey to attend this camp. I was amazed at the sheer numbers involved and even more amazed to hear that such high participation is as a direct result of the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. The rupture of a reactor and subsequent fallout have reportedly left 2.4 million Ukrainians with health problems. In a strange twist the disaster has left Ukraine with a vast pool of talent from which to cherry pick the very best disabled athletes. Whilst admitting that England were quite a way behind their eastern European counterparts, (Russia are no. 2 in the world) Mr Davis did say that the Ukraine team was getting older and hopefully England could close the talent gap in the near future.

Being able to support an England team with which I feel a great affinity has become one of the many positives I can take from this experience. It is worth remembering though that whilst there is a national team there are also vast numbers, as with the able-bodied, of people who’ll never play international football. CP football is something that all sufferers can be involved in. It is also a way of getting back into the game if you played previously and have suffered an illness or an accident which has led to disability. Football rightly paints itself as global sport and we can all get out there and play.

Huge thanks for help with article go to Jeff Davis and Matt Phillips at the FA. If you would like more information on the work the FA does with disability football email or visit

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.

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