Socialising is not easy or straightforward for many disabled people, but one group in Stafford has found football is the perfect way to combine exercise and friendship thanks to the FA Mars Just Play programme.
The award-winning grassroots programme, which looks to encourage greater recreational participation among adults, has already achieved more than 1m attendances throughout the country since its launch in 2011.
- WHERE: Stafford College
- WHAT: Weekly disability football session
- STRUCTURE: Friendly, non-competitive
- PARTICIPATION: 8-10 members each session
- AGE RANGE: 16+
The collaboration now seeks to take this success to new heights, with a particular drive for increased participation among female and disability groups.
For instance, every Monday evening members of Whych FC lace up their trainers and head to the sports hall at Stafford College.
Football started as one of many activities available at Walton Hall Youth Club down the road in Stone, but its overwhelming popularity led to both the Whych FC and Whych Ladies teams running out in Staffordshire’s Ability Counts league.
Mondays are now a highlight for those who struggle to meet friends or exercise on a regular basis, and most of the players attend the youth club on most other nights of the week.
Debbie Kent, a local youth worker from Stone, takes up the story from her perspective.
“I started going to a disability youth club with my own son about nine years ago. He’s got severe learning difficulties and is autistic as well.
“I ended up staying and volunteering, and from that I became a youth worker.
“We run sessions on a Friday night and a lot of them have been coming to us for over ten years now, so we’ve seen them grow up.
“They trust us. Because we know a lot of them so well now, they know we’re going to look out for them.
“A lot of them don’t really have a social life – they haven’t got the ability to meet friends or go for drinks or anything like that, so these sessions they do with us are the only time they get out and are with their friends.
“One thing we did at youth club was football, but because there’s so much going on – cooking, arts, crafts – we wanted to take things away so we could focus just on that.
“The FA got involved, so we had ten-week sessions with them. Then last year, we stepped it up and started to take it a bit more seriously.
“We started running on Monday nights, and The FA found Owen Goulding to come along and coach for us.
“Stafford College have been fantastic and really accommodating – they give us an extra half-hour just to coach the girls.
“We want to develop the ladies because they are keen to play, but it’s really hard to get them a game because there are not that many others out there.
“It is great to see the ladies playing and the confidence that came out. They come every week.
“It’s a chance for them to enjoy the game, be with their friends and have a bit of fun. We don’t push for them to win or anything – winning’s a bonus.
“If they get a goal they’re chuffed. It’s all about team building, and health and wellbeing especially.
“For a lot of them this is about fitness but also aggression – they get rid of a lot of it.
“The FA is brilliant. They promote us, are always there to help and support. I’m going to do the Level One coaching so that I can support the ladies. They don’t just come for a football session, there’s everything else that’s going on in their lives as well. It doesn’t end here.”
To add to their grassroots backing, as an official supporter of the England Senior Men’s team, Mars has a rich history of supporting The FA at international level.
Ahead of the World Cup, the ‘Sweetstake’ campaign was launched in April starring a number of England players, with the promotion offering fans a chance to win millions of prizes throughout the summer.
With football scenarios ranging from the likely – England win a throw in – to the hopeful – England win 4-0 in the match on the 18 June – fans can win anything from product to cash prizes.
The Sweetstake kicked-off at the weekend for England’s game with Nigeria, offering 90,000 FREE opportunities for match attendees to enter and play along live for the chance to win up to £10,000.