The Football Association is launching a three-year plan to help develop, improve and raise awareness of disability football in England

When Great Britain’s women’s deaf football team needed to raise almost £20,000 ($26,000) to compete at the Deaflympics in 2016, it was Manchester United legend Gary Neville that provided it.

When the team needed £10,000 ($13,000) to go to the World Cup earlier that year, England internationals Jack Butland and James Milner came through with £5,000 each ($6,500).

It was incredible generosity from these star names, who took huge pressure off the self-funded team. Every time they qualified for a major tournament, players needed to raise their own money to go.

However, these gestures put the lack of contribution from governing bodies under the microscope.

Fast forward to 2022, and that is changing, with the Football Association launching a three-year plan to help develop, improve and raise awareness of disability football in England.

Among many other things, it means that disability teams should no longer have to worry again about whether they can afford to participate in a major tournament they have qualified for.

I will do it if they wont.

Baroness Sue Campbell, who has helped to advance the women’s game massively, has overseen the plan, which she wants “to be owned by everybody”.

“All of that is part of laying the foundation to say, Right, were taking this seriously – not that individuals didnt take it seriously before, but the organisation didnt take it seriously before,” Campbell tells GOAL.

Speaking with members of the England team, the importance of one area stressed in the plan is highlighted: awareness.

Danielle Evans, the youngest player ever to represent England aged 14, is partially deaf and played ‘mainstream’ football her whole life. She didn’t know the deaf women’s team existed until Everton put her forward to play for England.

She didn’t know sign language either, though has since learned it – something that has had huge benefits for her at work as a paramedic, as well as with the national team.

Jennifer ‘Fer’ Evans, meanwhile, recalls there “never really [being] much information” around the national teams.

“You still have quite a lot of communication with people and theyre like, Oh, what do you mean you play for the deaf team?” she explains.

“Its important that players dont get to 16 or 18 or whatever and are like, Theres nothing for me to do here. I might as well just give up my dreams of representing England. When really, there is, it hasnt had the awareness yet.”

With resources, coaching and much more improving too, Evans hopes those changes can help push England and Great Britain to the next level, the teams having won five bronze medals between them since 2008.

“We’re all fed up with bronze,” she says. “We love coming home with a medal, but we want to get that silver or that gold. It is fantastic that we got bronze self-funded but now, funded, lets see how far we can go.”

Head coach Sammy Ligg is tasked with that aim, alongside assistant Lauren Asquith, who works across the disability teams as the England female para lead.

“I always say, sometimes its like the best kept secret, this opportunity,” Asquith, who has worked in disability sport since she was 18 years old, says. “It opens a whole world of different things and different dynamics.

“Weve got this exciting opportunity, but also the pressure to make it a high performing team.”

“The first thing we all said as a team when we had our first discussions was just gold. That was the only word that was ever mentioned,” Ligg says.

“Its easy to say it. It’s looking [and asking]: What do we need to do and what do we need to put in place to allow that to happen? I feel like the first few camps have been the starting process of making that happen.”

Asquith is quick to jump to answer a question about the FA’s new plan and what stands out. The two new female international squads by 2024 – a blind team and a cerebral palsy team – is one thing.

The pathway to the senior team is another, something Ligg says they are already across, having highlighted young players ready to make the progression. The third is the coaching support available and experts around the team.

For Asnath Losala, who is profoundly deaf and whose language is British Sign Language (BSL), extra support is very important. Losala was born in the Congo, grew up in South Africa and moved to England aged 13.

John Harper is her interpreter. He worked at the deaf school she attended in England and tells a story of how Losala completely galvanised it, the entire place “devastated” at the time, having sadly lost an incredibly popular student a few months prior.

“She probably helped us more than we helped her. Shes brilliant,” he adds.

Despite establishing herself as an international footballer, Losala does not play for a club, because it’s simply too difficult to find one with understanding of her needs for BSL.

“We can try and gesture but Im not getting the right information,” she explains, via Harper.

“Im getting that something is going on, Im sort of finding that second-hand information, Im catching the information later. I need the interpreter there full-time, but the funding is not there for other clubs.

“I just want to get involved in teams. Use the interpreter, then get [them] out of the way. Basically, I just try run along with it. What can I do except just try get involved? It’s frustrating.”

With England, that’s no problem. Harper is there, a lot of the players know BSL and the coaches are aware of making sure instructions are clear.

“Coaching position and the planning side of things – youve got to really think about how youre going to communicate that information,” Ligg, who was appointed as head coach last year, explains.

“I think it actually makes you a better coach, because you take that extra time to try and put yourself in different peoples shoes and look at whats going to be the most effective way.”

There have been a lot of improvements over the years. Fer Evans is still stunned that she’s training on the same pitches as England’s Lionesses.

“Its awesome to see how far its come,” she says.

That there’s no longer a need to fundraise is “a relief” too, Danielle Evans adds. “Its a privilege. Not many players get to experience this. It feels quite professional as well – where it should be, really.”

But Losala’s experiences highlight problems that still need to be addressed – problems the FA is in no way pretending don’t exist.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Campbell admits. “Were on the beginning of a journey.

“If it was a book, Id say were in chapter one or two, written by our pioneers, individuals who forced change because of their passion and their individual desire.

“This plan is not built on just pioneers. Its built on the whole of the Football Association saying this is now our plan. All of us have got to get behind it.

“That means weve got to get the right investment, weve got to get the right support and weve got to work at getting the right opportunities.

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