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Johnny Phillips: Everyone should be able to share the beautiful game

This weekend marks the culmination of National Inclusion Week, aimed at focussing on better opportunities for all, and giving a voice to anyone who may feel marginalised. I was first introduced to inclusion football a year ago, when referee Jon Moss got in touch about filming at an event he and his colleague, Martin Atkinson, were officiating in.

Bootle
Bootle

Moss had invited Liverpool indie band Red Rum Club over to play in his record store, The Vinyl Whistle, in Leeds. The band’s lead singer, Francis Doran, helps run Bootle Bucks Inclusion team. The Merseyside club has over 200 registered members, with players ranging from the ages of four to 41. With so much disruption to fixtures during the pandemic, Bootle Bucks Inclusion wanted to arrange a match against Bradford City’s pan-disability squad. So Doran asked Moss to provide the refereeing for the games - involving four teams from each club - held at Kirkstall Goals, in Leeds.

Fast forward to this summer and I caught up with Doran at a gig, where he told me about Bootle’s plans to host the largest inclusion football event in the UK this year to celebrate the lifting of restrictions. So, one afternoon in August, with a Soccer Saturday camera crew in tow, we went along to their home at the Berry Street Garage Stadium to see what was going.

Incredibly, 58 teams had turned up, some from afar afield as Northern Ireland, South Wales and Hampshire.

“Anything from autism, ADHD to cerebral palsy, down syndrome, any disability or any mental health issues, we want anybody to play football and this is football for all,” said David Parsons, from Hamble Pan Club Disability, in Hampshire. “When we say it’s inclusive, not a lot of people know about it. Anyone may have their own issues going on which means they can’t play mainstream.”

Life has been tough for everyone during the pandemic, but for those with disabilities and mental health difficulties the issues have been particularly hard.

“It all started when we met the Bootle Bucks in 2019, I saw what they were doing here and they encouraged us to do inclusion football,” said Margam Stags manager, John Heycock. “I had a look in our area - in Port Talbot, Neath and Swansea - and there was nothing really for children with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, or just low self-esteem. I wanted to do it differently where siblings could also get involved so they could do it as a family. This year we are up to over 50 players but we had some help along the way with the support of Swansea City FC. It’s made a difference to so many people’s lives, especially the parents – they can’t thank us enough, although we think we’re doing very little.”

Not long after the tournament, Heycock cycled from Cardiff to Bootle to raise sponsorship monies to go towards a purpose-built centre in Margam for the families to enjoy. Co-founder of Bootle Bucks Inclusion, John Doran, put some perspective on the issues of support and belonging that inclusion football offers.

Inclusion football - Bootle

“Barriers are put in front of these young people all their life. Sometimes society and communities aren’t fair, everything goes under the radar,” he explained. “Something we have found post-lockdown is that these young people used to regimes are getting out now and enjoy being out. It’s given the young people confidence, it’s given the parents a support network around them. Imagine being the mother of a newly-diagnosed child with autism, three or four years old, you’d think that the sky has fallen in. You need some help, you need a mum of an 18-year old to give you the clues, give you the experience of what to do and how the child may develop, and they get a lot of comfort from that.”

Over the past decade there has been a sustained and demoralising reduction in disability spending from central government which has damaged the most vulnerable in society. The work of many inclusion football clubs fills the gap in social welfare infrastructure. All of the clubs involved in the Bootle tournament want to see greater support.

“Today we had to come in three or four cars because the coach company was too expensive,” said Inter St Annes manager, Luca Lanzani. “We are struggling with money, everybody is, I understand this.”

“I’d love to see our local FA get more involved with it, to give us the support,” Parsons added. “More tournaments, more exposure, it would be fantastic for our local support.”

Among those in attendance was Jamie Carragher, born and bred in Bootle and a fervent supporter of community initiatives.

“We all know it’s not easy, it’s just brilliant to see people, young lads and young girls with smiles on their faces,” he said. “There’s a lot of people here thinking they are going to do their own one on the back of what Bootle have done and use this as an example. If this can help other people and give other teams who are coming from around the country the enthusiasm to put something like this on in their own area, I think it will be something to be really proud of.”

A more visible and well-supported network of inclusion teams across the country should be the common goal for everyone involved and it would be fantastic to see inclusion football grow. Those already involved are amongst the most dedicated and hard-working football fans in the country.

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