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.