Disability football cup final weekend to showcase sport and break barriers | Disability and sport


Sam Smith is the James Milner of powerchair football. “I’ve sort of had that nickname for a bit,” he says. “I’m reliable, I’m versatile and I can play in different positions. I think I’m always a seven out of 10 and the lads in our team are pretty quiet while I’m always talking. So yeah, I’ve been likened to Milner, which has its positives. I’m not the flair player but every team needs someone like me.”

Alongside his Northern Thunder teammates, Smith is set to take on West Bromwich Albion on Sunday in the Powerchair cup final. The Baggies are the sport’s dominant team, and the Thunder the only team to have beaten them this season. It’s not a grudge match – there are England teammates on both sides – but it’s an intense rivalry and will be just one story played out over the FA Disability Cup Finals weekend.

In a showcase of the best of disability football, six cup finals will be held in front of crowds at St George’s Park and shown live on BT Sport over Saturday and Sunday. Partially sighted, blind, deaf, cerebral palsy, powerchair and amputee versions of the game will be given an unprecedented showcase, and those involved in each variation hope it will help to continue a sense of growth and progress.

Smith’s relationship with football goes back a long way. Born in Newcastle, he was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy aged three and unable to walk by the age of 10, bringing an end to a youthful love affair with what he calls “the running game”. But after his father was handed a leaflet advertising powerchair football, Smith found a new passion.

“There was a year when I was a bit lost, watching my friends and my brothers play after school and unable to join them,” he says. “But then I found powerchair football and fell in love with it straight away.

“It’s something that I’m in control of when maybe before my body would let me down. I knew in my head what I wanted to do, I had a football brain, but physically I couldn’t do it. Now there’s nothing holding me back. There’s no barriers, it’s me and this chair and it’s a level playing field. It’s quite empowering really.”

Empowerment is a key component of disability sport, for athletes at all levels and for those who take inspiration from watching them. But there is now a serious attempt to strengthen disability football (in all its forms) as a sport in its own right. This year the FA announced its first strategy for disability football. At its heart was a target of increasing participation at grassroots level by 50% over the next three years. But there were also targets for an increase in coaches and more focus on support for the England national sides, the pinnacle of the game for the disabled footballer.

Sam Smith with a trophy
Sam Smith said he ‘fell in love’ with Powerchair football and finds the sport ‘quite empowering’. Photograph: Handout

Natasha Mead’s story serves as a perfect example of the opportunities that are beginning to open up in disability football. The 27-year-old from Plymouth is a blind athlete, an all-rounder who has represented Great Britain at goalball and cricket, and nearly made the Paralympics as a sprinter.

She made the switch to football and plays for Brighton & Hove Albion, the only woman in the squad. She is also now an England international, claiming a place in the inaugural women’s blind squad, after the team was created this spring. “I definitely think the game is growing, in particular the female game,” she says. “Hopefully we can have a woman’s league in the near future.”

For Smith, who has made 14 appearances for England and was part of a victorious side at the last European championships, the focus and direction provided by the national side are helping to drive the powerchair game directly, and in interesting ways. “It’s something that’s been echoed through to us from England, leaving the shirt in a better place than you found it,” he says. That means improving yourself as an athlete but also the way in which the game is played.

“I think the biggest development over the past few years has been the development of a passing style of play,” Smith says. “In the early days it was a lot more like bumper cars really. It was all chairs dribbling into each other and it became a bit messy. But one thing we’ve always been told with England is to try and play that passing game, a more expansive version of the game, and to take it back to our clubs to help progress the game, to make it a bit more exciting.”

Smith hopes to showcase that style to a watching audience on Sunday. And, more importantly, beat West Brom. “Winning’s the main thing,” he says, “but it’s a chance to showcase your sport too, to develop it even further and show that disabled people can compete at elite level.”



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