Disability football locally is still top heavy with adult players.

Before lockdown, when we were setting up our website, we spoke to Sam Firth.

Sam Firth

SYACL:  you’re a familiar face around the SYACL and a fantastic supporter of the League, could you tell us a little about your career to date, your refereeing and playing activities, and your involvement with all levels and aspects of football.

SF: I had my first experience of working in community-based football while at University in London. My course was partnered with Arsenal FC’s community foundation which provided us with some real hands on experience of working with different communities in North London. After University I spent some time coaching in the US before joining Sheffield Wednesday Community foundation on my return; I did this firstly as a volunteer to try and find my way in before becoming a full-time employee. I actually joined the community foundation following an advert from SWFCCP’s disability programme for a volunteer coach, as a child one of my step parents was a carer and I have a couple of autistic family members, so it was something I felt I really wanted to invest my time into as I always knew the difference sport could make. 

Outside of my career I run a Saturday morning football team in the Sheffield Fair Play League called Hillsborough Pumas. I’ve been running the team for the last three years, although we are part of the larger club which was founded in 2000, we decided when setting up we wanted to create a link with a local junior team to provide a pathway for young players into men’s football. I’ve also recently qualified as a referee and have enjoyed refereeing some junior & men’s fixtures when time has permitted as I’ve also continued to play on Sunday mornings. 

Hillsborough Pumas.

SYACL: How did you come to be involved with Disability Football and how did your relationship with the SYACL evolve?

SF: I first became acquainted with the SYACL while working at Sheffield Wednesday Community Programme; we had 5 teams which competed in the SYACL. My first impression was really shock at the sheer size of the league and the number of players & volunteers involved. It was amazing to meet so many people who really gave up a lot of their time to put a smile on the faces of others, it’s still the thing that stands out most for me, the people involved in this league really are heroes to me. 

SYACL: How do you sum up the success of the SYACL – you must be thrilled at the way it has grown.

SF: I am really thrilled with the success of the League; I do think it has really benefited from been controlled by the people involved. When I first started in my role at S&HCFA the League was still primarily run by the County FA, this threw up its own challenges, but since Darren & Mike have taken the reins the League has continued to develop at a great pace; I think that really comes down to the communication they have with the clubs & keeping its values consistent. 

SYACL: What have been the major challenges in increasing local participation in Disability Football?

SF: At the moment disability football locally is still top heavy with adult players. The junior game has continued to develop over the last few years & we now have a partnered league with the Sheffield & District Junior Football League, which many know is one of the largest junior football leagues in the whole of Europe. The greatest challenge is really changing perceptions around what children, parents & coaches think they can do. As an example, we recently ran an event with local schools for children with special educational needs and disabilities, I spoke to a couple of parents afterwards to discuss their child joining in at a local session and the parents told me, “They couldn’t because they are autistic.” This for us poses the greatest challenge; how do we create an environment where parents can feel comfortable knowing their child has the support they require & are able to develop at their own pace?

This is something we are trying to work on at the moment by introducing recreational football centres with our local community foundation trusts and by speaking to parents/carers directly at taster events to let them know these opportunities are here for them to access. 

SYACL: How do you see the future for the League?

SF: I see the League & clubs continuing to grow. I would like to see more involvement from charter standard clubs partnering with disability football teams to offer support. There’s a great deal of experience within grassroots football and I believe forming links between large grassroots clubs and disability football will not only help develop it further, but provide a safe future for our clubs. Clubs who offer a full pathway for Men’s, Boys, Girls, Women’s and Disability football are much more likely to attract investment meaning better facilities and a better football experience. It will be interesting to see where we can work with local clubs to make this happen. 

We are also working on a local Women’s offer at the moment, initially this will be linked into a cross County competition with clubs from West Riding, Leicestershire, Birmingham & Staffordshire involved; however, I see this developing into something more localized with the Ability Counts League in the future. 

SYACL: What would you say to anyone thinking of becoming involved in Disability Football?

SF: I’d just share with them some of the great stories I’ve seen over the time I’ve been involved. Football has the power to change people’s lives and I’ve seen huge personal development in individuals who have joined our clubs and leagues. To me the Ability Counts League is about more than football, it’s about the people and the friendships that the people involved develop. 

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