My Experience with Disability Football
Sam Harris from England was born prematurely and has cerebral palsy. He is passionate about disability sport having discovered the physical and mental benefits of playing disability football.
Born weighing just over 1lb and 15 weeks early meant life was never going to be straightforward. On the plus side, myself and my twin sister became local celebrities, the negative was the resulting physical problems.
For me, an early diagnosis of cerebral palsy meant that from about the age of five, I became aware that I was struggling with tasks others would find simple and natural such as tying my shoelaces, riding a bike and holding a knife and fork like a ‘grown-up’.
But one thing I could do – and loved doing – was kicking a football. At first on the school playing field, with jumpers as goal posts this was no problem.
However, as we all grew up and got faster and stronger – I didn’t. It became clear, mainstream football would prove too fast paced. Therefore, I decided disability football would still afford me the opportunity I craved and started at the Hertfordshire Disability Centre of Excellence.
This gave me my first taste of competitive football on a ‘level playing field’ with weekly training sessions and monthly tournaments. It was a Pan disability team which meant my teammates had various disabilities including: learning difficulties, blind/visually impaired, deaf/hearing impaired and cerebral palsy.
It was great to test myself in these type of conditions and helped with many aspects aside from playing football. It taught me how to communicate with people who had all sorts of issues – both mental and physical, people who I may not have interacted with so closely away from the football pitch.
This included driving with three teammates the seven hour trek to Scotland to play in a tournament. If spending that length of time with anyone doesn’t bring a sense of camaraderie nothing will!
Upon leaving, I look back on my time there and a great experience on and off the pitch where I learnt a lot in equal measure.
I then moved to the South-East Regional Cerebral Palsy team, the first time I had ever played with people who shared my disability.
I naively thought I would find the standard easy but I was in for a shock. Players there were much more experienced than me and before and during my time there, had been recognised by England and Great Britain CP teams competing in tournaments all over the world and in the Paralympics.
All my coaches have been a guiding hand and offered my valuable advice – it definitely helped that my coaches at Hertfordshire and St Albans also follow Watford FC for their sins so we were bound to get along well!
Based in Chelsea at the same training ground as the Premiership team play gave me the chance to run along the same immaculate turf as Frank Lampard but the hour long commute on Sunday afternoons took its toll. After three years, aged 16, I decided to seek a new challenge closer to home.
This brings us to my current experience where I play for St Albans City Youth Disability and have done so since 2013.
A recurring theme throughout my football experiences is the people I meet and the sense of community around every team regardless of age and disability.
The opportunities and pathways for disabled footballers at the grassroots level are imperative and during my time I have seen four of my teammates compete and bring home gold medals at the Special Olympics World Games.
I feel the 2012 Paralympics was a major factor in raising the profile of disability sport and how disabled people are viewed in this country but we still have a long way to go.
Cerebral palsy football will not be part of the 2020 Tokyo or 2024 Paris Paralympics which could potentially block pathways for a generation of up and coming players.