As a new league opens its doors for players with a range of impairments, Nancy Frostick heads down to one of their first matchdays to witness the impact on the local community.
“Get across now… good tackle mate.” On any touchline around the country, it is not unusual to find spectators shouting similar words of encouragement while watching football. In fact, a 2015 study from the Football Association revealed nearly one in five adults in England regularly play the sport.
This season, nine teams from the newly formed Eurosoccer East Midlands Pan-Disability Football League, along with their own group of pitch-side supporters, have joined the 8.2 million English footballing regulars by lacing up their boots at the weekend.
Competition and inclusion
On Sunday afternoons in Long Eaton, Riverside FC becomes a hive of activity as fixtures for youth, adult and – in a new addition to the roster – disability football all kick off their league fixtures.
The division plays matches once a month and comprises 7-a-side disability football teams from Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. The teams are made up of men and women over 16 which are eligible to play cerebral palsy or pan-disability football.
Disability football in England caters for sight impaired, hearing impaired and cerebral palsy players in their own leagues. However, as league chairman and Riverside Inclusive FC head coach Darren Bailey explains, pan-disability is open to a wider demographic.
Pan-disability football allows able-bodied players with a broad range of disabilities and health conditions, from autism and cerebral palsy, to those with acquired brain injuries, to play together on a regular basis.
Until Darren and some parents at Riverside Inclusive FC decided to set up the league, East Midlands teams had to travel to Sheffield for league meetings. Now teams that were previously unable to travel to competitive matches have somewhere local to get their football fix.
He said: “This is a competitive league with an official referee who has red and yellow cards, so it’s different to them doing it in their training sessions every week. This is something new and there’s bragging rights at the end of the day.”
Some teams like Riverside and Sherwood Colliery FC have enough players to enter more than one team in the league, allowing them to field cerebral palsy specific and women’s only teams. So far, interest from clubs in the area has been high, with new players travelling from Peterborough and Doncaster to play football in a friendly and supportive environment.
Former England and Team GB cerebral palsy goalkeeper, Leon Taylor now coaches the Riverside cerebral palsy (CP) team and stresses the importance of access to regular football for his players.
“What we want as a CP squad is plenty of playing opportunities. We’ve got a CP league, where we play other regions but the idea today is pan-disability so it gives another opportunity to play someone new,” Taylor explains.
One of the players under Beijing Paralympian Leon’s watchful eye is defender and Nottingham Forest fan Matt Filer, who has received mentoring to achieve his FA Level 1 coaching badge since joining the club.
Matt, who has been playing in disability football teams for a number of years, said, “It means a lot to come here, it’s a good past time. It’s good fitness and great banter.”
The camaraderie between players, coaches and volunteers is one way in which Paula Merchant from Derby noted the difference pan-disability football has made to her 16-year-old son Adam, who has autism.
She said: “Playing football gives the players a chance to socialise outside of school and for older players who aren’t in education or who might not be working, this can be the highlight of their week.”
The social side of football is also what motivated league treasurer Jules Bellingham to become involved in the set-up. As a full-time carer for her 23-year-old son, Alex, who also plays for Riverside, she appreciates the importance of the pan-disability community.
“Our ambition is to have fun, enjoyable, social activity that gives young people with disabilities something to get up and out of the house for. A lot of them are quite isolated otherwise.“For some of the players, before this came along football was sitting in their bedrooms playing on FIFA – it wasn’t really experiencing it. The league is facilitating that for them,” Bellingham expresses.
Instead of just scoring goals on-screen, the league provides a chance for players to emulate their heroes in a competitive environment, as well as enjoy other off-pitch benefits.
“Ultimately we want it to be competitive league football. They aspire to some of their footballing heroes, so why shouldn’t they play and have the same opportunities?
“Football is just part of it really, because some of the players find social things difficult. For those players, the friendships they have made through football are so important,” she added.
The league serves more than just the players though, as parents and family members are also brought together. A hub of activity for those who haven’t pulled on a match shirt is the pitch-side gazebo, where Jules sells refreshments and holds a raffle to raise money to reinvest in the league.
“As parents we are learning a lot from each other and there is a community feeling coming from it. I absolutely love going down and talking to everybody.
“When I took it on I didn’t realise how much was involved in doing all the admin, but I am really enjoying it and it is benefitting my lad and all the other young people out there that need this sort of facility,” she added.
With ambitions of growing to 15 teams next season, representatives from each club sit on the league’s committee to ensure everyone supports fundamental decisions. For league chairman Darren, each club’s involvement off the pitch is vital.
“It’s our first season, so it’s all about working our way through the teething problems and making sure we make the right decisions. We’ve got the managers on board at the committee meetings to make sure that everyone is buying in to it.”
In monetary terms, investment in the pan-disability league has come from the FA and sponsor Eurosoccer. Bringing people together around sport, however, will be the real buying power in securing the long-term future of a league with a friendly heart and plenty of ambition.
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