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Home Media News It’s given me so much confidence’: disability football scheme brings joy to Tottenham

It’s given me so much confidence’: disability football scheme brings joy to Tottenham

A Premier League initiative is embracing thousands of young people across 28 clubs. Players and a coach share their stories
Date: 13/08/2019

It’s given me so much confidence’: disability football scheme brings joy to Tottenham

It is a roasting hot summer’s day and a corner of Tottenham’s training ground is teeming with hundreds of young people sporting the colours not just of Spurs but of 27 other current and former Premier Leagueteams. This is not a competition but a celebration of a programme to promote inclusion and improve coaching for people with disabilities, that has attracted hundreds of its coaches and participants to this lovingly manicured corner of Enfield.It is easy to be sceptical about this kind of scheme, which could be considered a fig-leaf from an organisation whose primary purpose involves funnelling ludicrous, thundering torrents of cash into the pockets of elite sportspeople, and is anyway assisted in funding it by the inevitable corporate sponsor – BT, in this case. But three artificial pitches full of noise, action and flying footballs go a long way towards blowing away such cynicism.

Though John Hartson is on hand to play the role of token ex-pro, the event’s stars are all in full kit. Manchester City’s Jamie Tregaskiss, an exceptional young footballer before he lost a leg to bone cancer aged 13 and now, a little over a decade later, an England amputee international, is one of them. “I’ve always played football, fell in love with the sport straight away,” he says. “When I was 10 I got scouted for Man City, and I played for their academies a little bit, but unfortunately when I was 13 I did actually have bone cancer in my leg, which had to come off. It was either my leg or my life at that point.

“When I took my leg off, I’d say I didn’t play for maybe about 12 months, because I had to get used to my amputation and I had to get fit and healthy – I was pounded with chemotherapy for about a year. So I was in no fit state to kick a ball; I just had to chill out for a bit, play Xbox, be a kid. Obviously I thought my footballing career was over, but it wasn’t long after that I found out about amputee football and I couldn’t wait to get started, and the rest has been history.”

City’s community disability officer, Paul Kelly, is among the coaching staff to have made the trip. “We found Jamie at a limb centre when he was 13 years of age,” he says. “Within six weeks we had him on crutches playing amputee football. So we found him and got him playing immediately. He’s become one of the top five players in the world, and he could be the top one player if we secure funding internationally to progress the sport.”

Kelly’s own history is extraordinary, having gone from being an unemployed bricklayer with no coaching history or qualifications to a senior position in one of the country’s outstanding disability football programmes in little more than a decade. When he joined, City regularly worked with about 30 disabled children; now they reach 1,500 per month. “I’d just been made redundant as a bricklayer and started working part-time in disability sport, then the two football clubs in Manchester approached me to work with them and I’m a City fan so I chose the blue side,” he says. “I started with them when we were in the outhouse and now we’ve gone to the penthouse. I’ve learned it all myself – self-learned, self-skilled, and then Man City have come in and supported my development. I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t use a computer, I couldn’t even work a phone properly. It’s not a job, what I do, it’s a pleasure. I pop up like a spot every morning, and they have to push me to bed to go to sleep. Three hours’ sleep like Margaret Thatcher, that’s what I live on.”

BT and the Premier League launched their disability football scheme in 2016, initially supporting it for three years. They have recently renewed their commitment for another three years under a new deal, yet to be formally announced, which will extend its reach and budget, and improve access for the disabled to the Premier League’s other community programmes. In the year to July 2018 the scheme cost £2.8m and reached 36,479 participants, of whom about a third sustain their involvement over multiple sessions. Though the Premier League is hardly known for its munificence its charitable fund dispersed £34.3m in the year to 31 July 2018, making it a significant charity on a national scale (the median expenditure of the country’s top 150 charities is £37.4m).

Justin Tomlinson, Conservative MP and minister for disabled people, health and work, says that no government-led alternative could match the scheme’s appeal. “They’ve got the hook and the excitement of their respective football clubs, and many of the young players are also supporters, and to be wearing their own team’s shirt, representing the club that they love, is a really powerful way to give that extra level of excitement,” he says. “I think it’s [ideally] a combination of the government, Sport England, the Premier League and BT together unlocking opportunities for young people.”

That the Premier League could still do more, for the other divisions of professional football, for the game at grassroots level, for its customers and its communities, is hard to argue with. But what is also irrefutable is that, despite that, it is succeeding in changing lives for the better.

“I didn’t really get on with normal clubs very well; I used to get frustrated with all the pressure that was there, and I really found a club which invests in me and so many other people,” says Luke McClelland, a 15-year-old who has autism and joined Brighton’s massively improved disability programme two years ago. “It has given me so much confidence. At school I’ve made a lot of new mates, and it’s really given me the belief to do what I want. I wasn’t getting great grades before I joined the club; now I’m hoping to do A-levels. It’s really boosted me, and whatever I go on to do I’m going to be so grateful.”

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