A CORK soccer club that is steadfast in the belief that “sport should have no barriers” is celebrating five years of being involved in the Football For All programme — an FAI initiative dedicated to promoting inclusion in soccer.
Togher-based club Pearse Celtic is the only club in the city to have a Football For All team, which caters for people with a disability who want to play soccer.
The team within Pearse Celtic, which trains on a weekly basis at Nemo Rangers’ complex, is currently for six to 18 year-old boys and girls who may be unable to play mainstream soccer.
This season, volunteer coaches Kate and Mark O’Brien (no relation) have taken over the training sessions for the team, which has seen a gradual uptick in numbers since its inception.
“It’s fantastic really, it’s like a little family. Everyone supports everyone,” Kate told The Echo.
“The parents come down too and we also allow siblings to jump in if they want to.
“It’s all about getting their confidence up and getting them to mix with other kids with disabilities and other kids who don’t have disabilities who come too.”
Kate’s oldest son, Cian (16), who has cerebral palsy, also plays on the team.
“He had brain surgery when he was five so he’s had all the right side of his brain removed but he’s flying it.
“Unfortunately any other club wouldn’t take him due to the brain surgery.”
Janice Philpott, whose son Karl also plays on the team, said she couldn’t praise the coaches highly enough for what they do every week.
“Mark and Kate are after taking over from the other trainers — they were brilliant too- but Mark and Kate took over because they wanted to keep it going for the whole summer as it would normally stop.
“They’re just fantastic.”
For Karl, who has ADHD and is also on the spectrum, the training sessions are a highlight of his week.
“It really is something he looks forward to every week and it’s really brought on his social skills.
“At the start, he wouldn’t even entertain doing the warm-up, all he wanted to do was play the match and score the goals, but now he’ll listen and he’ll do the warm-ups.”
This was echoed by Ruth Henderson who says her son Daniel (14) has come on “leaps and bounds” since joining the team five years ago.
“Daniel would have an intellectual disability, quite a severe one, and he’s totally non-verbal. Before he started here, he wouldn’t have had any motor skills to speak of.
“In terms of social skills, he couldn’t even participate really when he started.
“We used to get him into the line and he would run away any time a child came near him, but now he’s totally integrated so in terms of social integration it’s been fantastic for him.
“He never stops smiling when he comes here and he used to be so fearful in the beginning because the social aspect would have been so tough for him.
“But now he’s so happy in himself. His emotional wellbeing has improved so much,” she said.
“It also brings a sense of community for us as a family, to be part of something.”
For volunteer Katherine Merritt, seeing the benefits the programme brings to the children is so rewarding.
“They’re a super bunch of kids.
“You can see the difference in the kids since they joined and it’s phenomenal.
“Some of the kids have been here since the very start — like Daniel, here’s from the very first week.
“Seeing where Daniel has come from five years ago to now is remarkable and we’ve come on the journey with him,” she said.
Katherine, who has been helping out at the training sessions since the start, said she hasn’t looked back since getting involved.
“I’m living in the Togher area and I go back years with Pearse Celtic because they’re a local club in Togher. About five years ago they were thinking of doing Football For All and I was approached to do it so I said I’d have a bash off it.
“The kids are great, they’re amazing, but the parents are fantastic too.
“It’s great to have that banter with everyone and it works so well. There’s great craic but there’s competitiveness there too,” she laughed.
“It really is such an important programme. It means kids with disabilities, they don’t feel left out and they shouldn’t.
“Sport should have no barriers.”
Two of the team’s most recent additions are twins Tadgh and Liam Kelly, aged 8.
The budding soccer stars, who have an intellectual disability, have been playing for just a few weeks but their father Brian had nothing but positive things to report.
“They’ve only been with the club for about six or eight weeks, but it’s been a brilliant experience so far.
“Even in those few weeks, my boys, they know everyone. Every two minutes they’re hugging or high-fiving someone.
“They love it and the lads are so patient and understanding of what the children need which is so important.”
Speaking in relation to the Football For All initiative, Football For All Football Development Officer for Munster Nick Harrison, said the programme is something the FAI is committed to expanding across Ireland.
“Going back a while ago it was just a national coordinator and myself looking after Munster and then another development officer was appointed for the Leinster area three or four years ago and now most recently, in our restructuring that’s happened in the last few months, there’s some more positions going to be available.
“The plan is there will be eight Football For All development officers around the country.
“There will be one dedicated to Cork specifically, which will be massive really,” he said.
The initiative, which was established in 2002, saw the launch of the club programme in 2010.
“That’s where a mainstream club has a team specifically for kids with additional needs in the same way they have an U8s, an U9s etc. It’s been a real success.”
Football For All coaches attend training courses provided by FAI.
“Before we start anything, we meet all the committee and we explain what’s involved for them and what the commitments are and then we provide training to all the coaches.
“From there we support on an ongoing basis, normally at the launch and then again a few months later to check everything’s ok,” Nick explained.
He said the benefits the programme brings to children is incredible.
“We have kids sometimes who are on the autistic spectrum who wouldn’t dream of setting foot on a football pitch and the first training session they might just kick a ball to their mum, second session they might take their coat off and then six months later you see them running around and playing. It’s amazing,” he said.
“Then there’s a pathway, so for those who have specific impairments such as power chair users or amputees or those who are visually impaired or deaf there’s international teams so there’s a pathway there for a child who may be seven/eight at the moment for them to be off in 15 years’ time playing for Ireland at a World Cup somewhere.”