Football is the UK’s favourite sport, both to watch and play. It builds community between a club’s fans and creates friendships between mates having a kick around. It’s a sport that many will have grown up playing at school, and it’s common for workplaces to have an informal team, where people can let off steam after a long day in the office.

However, some have had to remain on the sidelines as they can’t participate in mainstream football. But Cambridgeshire’s football clubs are determined to change this. Sarah Hudson, football development officer with Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire FA, told me over zoom that her work focuses on raising awareness of disability and inclusive football sessions across the counties as they’re still not very well known.

Sarah Hudson

Vicky Neal, wellbeing manager for Cambridge United Community Trust (CUCT), oversees the Trust’s physical health, mental health and inclusion programmes. “Most of our inclusion programme is run by our fantastic coach Phil Mullen,” Vicky said. “He’s been around in Cambridge for many years and knows so many groups of individuals with different disabilities. His passion for enabling them to have an opportunity to play football is kind of the driving force behind our inclusion programme.”

Phil goes into schools and runs sessions all week at Cambridge’s Abbey Leisure Centre and Coleridge Community Centre. The sessions are a mix between impairment specific and pan-disability, which is where different impairment groups are playing together. It’s something the participants themselves were keen to continue post-lockdown as they really enjoy playing with more people, and the increased sociability of the pan sessions.

There are some sessions which CUCT have deliberately kept impairment specific, Vicky told me, such as ‘frame’ sessions for people who need a frame to assist mobility, and Down’s Syndrome sessions. These decisions have all come from an emphasis on listening to participants: “they feel empowered, they feel listened to”, Vicky said.

Phil Mullen

However, pan-disability sessions include cerebral palsy, visually impaired, and amputee groups all coming together to play an eight aside match on a Tuesday evening. Phil has to carefully decide on the balance of making sure it’s enjoyable because of numbers, and that it’s competitive, but also that everyone’s at a similar level to compete with each other.

“It’s so inspiring to watch them around each other”, Vicky said. “They’re just so accepting of each other, they don’t even see the disabilities because they’re just like, we’re just some footballers playing together.”

Sarah works with local clubs to support them in providing inclusive and disability sessions. “In essence, we want as many people as we can playing football,” Sarah said. She signposts clubs to any funding that may be available and help them promote sessions to the public and different groups.

And she emphasises that it’s about supporting everyone to try playing football. “Mainstream football isn’t for everyone. There are a lot of children and adults that find their club just isn’t right for them. So we provide that additional opportunity for them, perhaps to build up their confidence, before they move into more mainstream football.”

CUCT is also expanding their understanding of inclusivity in their football offerings. They’re based at Abbey Stadium, in the Abbey ward of Cambridge which is one of the most deprived areas in the city. Mental health is also being incorporated, including a programme called Mind Your Head. CUCT also provide lots of additional support by using football as the draw, such as match day reporting sessions, which helps people improve their English, and a combined course with AstraZeneca teaching science.

Vicky’s understanding of the meaning of ‘inclusion’ changed for her since moving to the Trust. “We used to call the programme the ‘disability programme’, but we’ve changed it to ‘inclusion programme’. It doesn’t just mean disability, and ‘disability’ has so many different forms, and it shouldn’t mean that you can’t have access to a football session. Inclusion for me is just making sure we reduce as many barriers as possible, giving you the best chance of coming and enjoying the session.”

For Sarah, it’s all about giving everyone the opportunity to take part and be involved. “It’s about getting that mindset into the local community that actually there is an opportunity for everyone. If we can provide that opportunity then we’re potentially changing people’s lives and keeping people healthy.”

What’s essential is continuing to promote and raise awareness of inclusive football, and championing those who provide it. If you want to find out more, check out CUCT’s inclusive sessions, and Cambridgeshire FA’s website here.

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Anna Willis

Freelance journalist and story teller; on Twitter @annawillis101