'Football helped me tell my fiancee I had cerebral palsy'

Wednesday 11 Mar 2015
James Blackwell in action at St. George's Park

Holly Blackwell feared the worst when in April 2013, two months before her wedding, her fiance said he had something to tell her.

Then came the moment when James Blackwell told his wife-to-be that he had cerebral palsy and he wanted to play for England.

Cerebral Palsy World Championships

At St. George's Park
16-28 June 2015
For more info go to cp2015.com

He said: “She never knew I had it. It’s something I have tried to hide as much as I can. I don’t want people treating me differently.

“She just said ‘why didn’t you tell me? It wouldn’t change my opinion of how we are’.”

Blackwell, 28, has always had cerebral palsy, a lesion on the brain that affects the left hand side of his body.

“If you look closely you will see my left arm is smaller than my right. My muscles are a lot tighter.

“But I don’t like to trouble people with any problems I have whether it is personal, work or whatever.

“So I have hidden it quite well, because I don’t want anyone’s sympathy.”

That Blackwell chose to hide his disability by playing a good standard mainstream football, in the Gloucestershire County League for Kingswood, was nothing short of ingenious.

A dependable right-back or right-winger, no-one would have thought the youngster from Hawkesbury Upton, near Bath, had anything to hide.

“When I was young I was told I would be in a wheelchair and wouldn’t be able to walk let alone be able to play sport”

James Blackwell 

He said: “When I was young I was told I would be in a wheelchair and wouldn’t be able to walk let alone be able to play sport.

“But my parents, Paul and Julie, urged me to play the football and I played as a striker.

“I went on to play for South-West representative football so I’ve always hidden it well.”

Then came London 2012, the Paralympics, and Blackwell took a different view of his disability.

“I played against [England and Team GB midfielder] Ibs Diallo in the Gloucestershire County League and I saw him go to London 2012.

James Blackwell first got involved with England in 2013

James Blackwell first got involved with England in 2013

“I thought the standard of football Team GB were playing was quite high.”

It was only then that Blackwell felt that his passion for football could become a release and not just a disguise.

“I felt like I needed to come out about my disability when I heard about the England CP team,” he said.

“And football helped me tell Holly. It helped me open up to her, as through the prospect of playing for England, it was something I could have an opportunity with.”

And so Blackwell shared his secret.

“I sent an email to [England Disability manager] Jeff Davis and asked him what the next step was.

“When people hear the words cerebral palsy they look at the worse-case scenario. Hopefully now more people understand what CP is”

James Blackwell 

“He sent a coach to watch me in a friendly and they told me I was good enough and brought me straight into the squad.”

Blackwell could not wait to tell his team-mates at Kingswood that he would be playing for England. But none of them knew he had cerebral palsy.

He said: “Only my close friends knew. Most players are one-side dominant anyway and my left foot is not too bad.

“But a lot of people were shocked. When people hear the words cerebral palsy they always look at the worse-case scenario.

“I think it has helped a lot of people understand what cerebral palsy is.”

James Blackwell in action

James Blackwell in action for England

Blackwell plays for England as a Class 7 and it is that middle-severity disability group which makes up at least five of the seven players on the field at any time for an international CP team.

As he looks ahead to Wednesday and the draw for this summer’s World Championships, hosted by St. George’s Park, Blackwell is daring to dream.

“I’ve seen a big change since I have been here. The squad has come on so much.

“It is a very tightknit team and we are getting fitter, stronger, playing better football.

“The coach, Keith Webb, has come on board and introduced a philosophy and a style of play.

“The support network that we have with the squad, the coaches, the physios and the facilities we have at St. George’s Park, you won’t match anywhere in the world.”

“We have all overcome disability to get where we are and overcome so much in our lives. Then to wear an England shirt: you give your all”

James Blackwell 

Playing disability football has helped Blackwell boost his status at Kingswood too: “The fitness programme England CP have put us on is so good that my club are using me as a striker, coming on late in the game, to chase things down.”

England are a growing force in the game and a top-eight finish will secure qualification for the Rio Paralympics in 2016.

But Ukraine, Russia and, to a lesser extent, Iran, will be formidable opponents should they cross paths.

“Looking at the pots we are going to have a tough seed in the group but then we knew that anyway,” Blackwell said.

“Being the host nation is massive for us because our friends and family can come to watch.

“And we think we can hold our own and get to the quarter-finals and qualify for the Paralympics. “

Nevertheless 2016 seems a long way off for Blackwell. Next  month James and Holly are expecting their first child. Then two months later comes the World Cup.

He said: “Wearing the England shirt is what I love. And that’s what everybody here shares.

“We have all overcome a disability to get where we are and overcome so much in our everyday lives.

“Then for an England shirt to be put over our heads… you can’t help but give your all.

“Even in the training sessions, it’s 100 per cent. I just can’t wait.”

The Cerebral Palsy World Cup kicks off at St. George's Park on 16 June 2015. Visit cp2015.com and follow @CPEngland2015 for more details.

If you are interested in playing Cerebral Palsy football contact Elite Development Manager for disability football Jeff.Davis@TheFA.com

By James Callow Content manager At St. George's Park