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“I hope we can change perceptions & social barriers through football”

The FA Disability Cup returns to St George’s Park this weekend with BT Sport providing coverage - the first time the Cup has been broadcast live. It is being described as the tonic to raise spirits. The Cup is set to remind everyone involved in the game why they should aspire to return to activity. Philip Heap, the FA’s National Development Manager tells us what the return of this cup means for football and its disabled players. He discusses the FA’s plans to encourage more disabled people into playing the game we love.

Oakey (Everton) sends in a shot

Philip Heap
It’s been a football frenzy month. What do you hope the heightened focus on football brings to you as an organisation and disabled people who may want to play the game?

It’s been a fantastic few weeks, following the England team at Euro 2020 - a real rollercoaster of emotions! I’ve seen the impact our successful run has had on my 6-year-old son, who is now an avid fan and cannot wait to wear his England kit to his football training. I hope this has been replicated across the country and disabled people feel encouraged to give football a go. Whether that be mainstream football or one of the many impairment-specific formats that are available.

Disabled people have been the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. How has this affected football and what are the plans to encourage more disabled people to take football up or get back to the game?

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on disabled people and their ability to take part in sport and activity, including football. Participation rates have gone down despite there being an exemption for outdoors disability football formats to continue since January 2021.

Our Football Your Way campaign launched in May this year and was developed in response to this. Our Football Your Way hub offers guidance and ideas to support disabled players returning to training and playing in a fun and safe way. From skill demonstrations to downloadable resources, there’s something for everyone.  

We have also worked in partnership with the Football Foundation and Sport England to provide financial support to the disability football network. This started with the Return to Football fund which saw in excess of £150,000 issued to the network of Disability Football Leagues. This fund aims to support these leagues re-start competition in a COVID secure way for the coming season.

More recently we launched a new Return to Disability Football Fund in partnership with Sport England and the Football Foundation. This fund provides grants of up to £1,000 to support disabled people getting back to playing football following the pandemic. Any club or organisation that had an FA or County FA affiliated disability team during the 2019/20 or 2020/21 seasons is eligible to apply. Further details can be found on the Football Foundation’s website.

We helped your team to deliver the Football Your Way campaign and the new player hub inclusively. What else needs to happen to encourage disabled people to take up football, and what does The FA have in their future engagement plans?

The Football Your Way hub is a great place to start for any prospective new player and for people looking for local opportunities. You can check out our new Find Football activity finder.

Our future plans sees us working to formalise the long-term objectives for disability football. This plan will raise awareness, increase opportunities to play, strengthen our talent pathway, support our international teams, and also work to challenge and change the perceptions and social barriers that our disabled players face. The plan will be launched later this summer – watch this space!

The FA Disability Cup returns on Saturday 17 and Sunday 18 July – tell us more about this.

We’re thrilled to be welcoming players this weekend to be part of The FA Disability Cup and for disability football to be back.

The FA Disability Cup is now in its fifth year and is the largest competition of its kind in this country. The Cup is so important as it gives players within impairment-specific football a national FA competition to call their own, complete with dreams of reaching St. George’s Park for finals day.

The weekend will see us host five cup finals, all delivered in partnership with a range of impairment-specific organisations. These include:

  • the Amputee Cup final in partnership with England Amputee Football Association
  • the Blind cup final in partnership with the National Blind Football League
  • the Cerebral Palsy cup final in partnership with CP Sport
  • The Partially Sighted cup final in partnership with the National Partially Sighted Football League
  • And the Powerchair cup final in partnership with the Wheelchair Football Association.

As well as the five cup finals, this year’s event will also play host to a female blind football exhibition which will showcase a brand-new format of blind football. We have been developing this new format in the hope of attracting a more diverse participation base into blind football.

It’s also really exciting as for the first time ever, BT Sport will be broadcasting all of the coverage live and in a variety of accessible formats. Visit BT Sport o find out how to watch the five finals.

The competition will be the most accessible live broadcast of a football match taking place in the UK to date – how important is media profile to the sport and The FA?

It’s incredibly important. You only have to look at tennis courts during Wimbledon to see how an increased media profile can inspire grassroots participation. Within football there has been a real focus on female football over the last few years and this has seen many of the Lionesses become household names. Something that has helped contribute to female football participation more than double since 2018.

By increasing the media profile of disability football, I hope that we can change perceptions and social barriers so that more disabled people feel they can play football. Moving forward, we plan to showcase diverse role models to inspire participation and to raise awareness of the opportunities to play, coach and facilitate disability football. We will be calling on our commercial and broadcast partners to help us amplify our messages. The live coverage of the FA Disability Cup is hopefully just the start.

Our vision is fairness for disabled people in sport and activity. What does this look like to you and your work in football?

For me this revolves around the word ‘choice’. I want disabled footballers to have the same choices open to them as non-disabled footballers have. This relates to playing the game, so local opportunities to play the format of the game that best suits them. Whether this be recreationally or competitively, whilst at school, in the community or within a club. It also extends off the pitch, as I want to see more disabled coaches, referees and volunteers feeling confident enough to get involved in the game.

As restrictions across the country lift, everyone’s individual journey back to physical activity and football will be different. I’m looking forward to playing my part in supporting disabled people to return, and for some, take up football for the first time.

Follow this weekend’s event on Twitter #DiscoverDisabilityFootball

Image credit: The FA and photographer Keith Clayton.