Panathlon Football Cup gives disabled youngsters rare opportunity to compete under Wembley arch
Every young footballer dreams of a shot at Wembley glory but for some the opportunities are even more special.
Over 100 disabled youngsters from across London got the rare opportunity to compete in tournament football under the national stadium's famous arch this month in the finals of the Panathlon Football Cup.
The best eight boroughs from Panathlon’s London-wide football programme - which features teams of severely disabled young footballers from 22 boroughs - battled it out at Wembley Powerleague, with Riverside School from Tottenham winning the tournament for Haringey for a second consecutive season.
“It feels absolutely fantastic," said Lucas Neocleous, special needs assistant and football coach at Riverside School. "It's been tough this year as defending champions, but we've played well.”
Taylor Raynor, aged 13, a student at Riverside School, said: “I like Panathlon. Football is my favourite sport and it's great to represent the school. It's exciting playing at Wembley.”
But it wasn't just the champions who went home happy, with all 16 teams - across two age groups - giving it their all, inspired in no small part by the setting.
“It's fantastic - a wonderful opportunity for children with a wide spectrum of disabilities to get involved and play," said Steve Day, PE coordinator at Riverside School in Bromley, who finished in eighth place.
"Not many people get to play in a tournament under the Wembley arch, so it’s great. The kids have really enjoyed it, there’s great camaraderie and really good sportsmanship, which is good to see.”
Southwark under-13s goalkeeper Cameron O'Connor (pictured right) said: "This is the first time I've played here at Wembley. It's inspiring. It's good to take part, as tournaments like this aren't normally for disabled kids."
Panathlon is a national charity that provides sporting opportunities for over 7,500 disabled young people each year. Over 450 schools took part in 115 ‘mini Paralympic’ competitions run by the charity in 2014/15, with more than 50,000 active hours of sport provided to disabled children.
Football was introduced to the London Panathlon programme in 2008, targeting players not able to access football elsewhere, including young people with severe learning difficulties, visual impairments and Powerchair users, involving over 500 disabled footballers each year.
Alongside the cut and thrust of the Wembley tournament, Panathlon football coaches also ran a coaching session for those players not yet comfortable or confident enough to play in a competitive match.
One of the coaches, Thomas Clements, proved an inspiration to the young footballers in his session, particularly those who rely on a walking aid, as he does himself.
“The thing I’ve enjoyed most about today is there have been more people with walking frames than usual," said the qualified FA Level Two coach (pictured below), who is also Panathlon's schools ambassador.
"Being a walker-user myself, it’s good seeing their faces as they realise I’m the coach. You do a little demonstration for them, not too hard, then they run through it. So long as you praise them at the end, do a little high five or praise them when they score, it’s good.”
Panathlon’s football coaching targets the next generation of players, whilst this summer’s first ever ‘girls only’ football skills days - run exclusively by female coaches - proved a resounding success in encouraging more disabled girls to get involved in the beautiful game.
Plans are underway for a Panathlon girls’ football team, with the charity aiming to have them compete in a London community league by next season.
You can find out more about Panathlon at www.panathlon.com.