Rural Waterford football club Park Rangers AFC run a thriving training programme aimed at bringing football to children with various disabilities, writes Jacqui Corcoran
Daniel Jay gathers himself as the ball comes towards him. The ball, which is fitted with a bell to assist his blind or visually impaired teammates and opposition, makes a sound as it rolls along. The goal is quite a distance away, but there’s an opening.
“Come on Daniel, you can do it!” calls his mother Ali from the sidelines. His sister Aimee is also there to cheer on the team, along with their father, grandparents, and other Park Rangers supporters.
This is a big day for Daniel, his team and his club. He is playing in an inter-club Football For All blitz, and the competition is fierce.
Daniel stops. He steadies himself. He shoots. He scores! By the end of the day, Daniel has scored two magnificent goals. He is beaming as he clutches the impressive trophy he has been awarded.
“He’s absolutely thrilled!” says his mother.
Daniel, she explains, used to be a shy, clingy child. He joined the rural Waterford club, Park Rangers AFC, just over a year ago, and he trains with the Football For All team under the nurturing guidance of head coaches Susan Elliott and Janet Ferguson.
“They’re great, they know how to handle him. Football For All has been so good for his self-esteem, but it also makes him equal with his sister. It’s become normal now for her to say she plays camogie and her brother plays football.”
Park Rangers is one of a number of clubs around the country that, between them, cater for almost 4,000 young players. Run under the auspices of the FAI, the programme’s central aim is to deliver football opportunities to people with various disabilities who may not ordinarily get a chance to play the beautiful game.
Coach Elliott has five children herself, four of whom play football at Park Rangers. The Football For All team, which her 15-year-old daughter Shelley plays for, holds a special place in her heart though.
“For Shelley, Football For All opened a door and let her enjoy something that was a big part in the lives of her brothers and sister. Shelley started in the regular academy at the club, but she has Turner syndrome and wouldn’t have been up to progressing through the ranks of the training ages. Football For All gets her out, helps her to keep fit and to keep the stress levels down in the run-up to her Junior Cert.”
Elliott has been involved in Football For All from the outset, and was instrumental, along with founder coach Mary Condon, in setting up the Saturday morning coaching sessions. Since the first day almost three years ago, when the club welcomed six young players, Football For All has expanded and the club now caters for the needs of 16 children and teenagers.
While the players benefit enormously, Elliott says the ripple effect throughout the club is wonderfully positive.
“It opens the minds of everyone. It’s great for the siblings of players.
“We encourage brothers and sisters to get involved. My 13-year-old Matthew and 14-year-old Lillie help at the Football For All training.
“It’s great to see them develop an understanding of the needs of the players — for example Matthew was helping an older lad who had some challenging behaviour. Mathew could spot when the lad’s temperature was rising and get Lillie and another club player, Alfie, to manage things a bit to make sure this lad could score a goal. It always worked — the mood would lighten.
“Matthew and Lillie don’t know even know all the life skills they are gaining every week at training. But the reverse is also true — the Football For All players don’t know just how much they are giving to my kids and to the club and to the community. It’s all very positive.”
Mary Walsh concurs. Her daughter Eve, she says, feels a greater sense of equality now — her brother has his football club and so has she.
“That sense of belonging is hugely important to Eve. She loves the idea of playing on a team and belonging. She gets a great kick out of putting on the team jersey and playing for her club.”
As a child with Down syndrome attending a mainstream school, Football For All has enhanced Eve’s life both on and off the pitch.
“The training and practice have helped her to do something that others in the school do. Compared to say hurling or tennis, football is relatively easy for her. She can join her peers in the playground now and kick a ball around. The club couldn’t be better, it seems like every week’s a welcome party.”
Another parent, Darach, father of Tom, aged nine, agreed. “Tom is one of three children. He’s on the autistic spectrum and would be quick to leave something he didn’t want to do. His sisters play other sports, but they think Tom is the lucky one because of all the support he’s getting and the fun he has with Football For All.”
Darach went on to describe Tom’s kind-hearted nature. “He’s not a bit competitive and would be inclined to hand the ball over to someone else so they can have the glory of scoring a goal.”
during the game
Tom’s generosity of spirit may not be every club’s ideal attribute in the competitive world of football, but as coach Janet Ferguson explains, the Football For All programme at Park Rangers is about much more than just competing.
“Of course the football is important, that’s what the children are here for and we totally respect and support that. I’ve worked in disability services in home support for years now though, and I see the wider benefits. The biggest things for me are the socialisation and integration opportunities we can give the players and their families.”
Elliott described a moment that stands out for her over the time she has been involved.
“There was one little fellow I coached who had some difficulties around stress and anxiety and had some challenging behaviour issues. I remember the day I held his hand and got him through playing his first match. His mam was on the sidelines and she had tears in her eyes watching him because she never thought she’d see the day — her boy out there wearing the club jersey and playing for his team. She was so proud that day, and so was I.
“It’s those moments that make the hard work and the commitment worth it.”
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