We caught up with League Chairman, Mike Stylianou and Secretary, Darren Warner to hear a bit more about the history of the Competition, write Margaret Gregory and Colin Muncie [ both members of the Social Eyes Barmy Army [ but no bias ] and huge fans of the SYACL.
The first things that strikes you about Mike and Darren when you meet them is not how hard they work, but how much they believe in the project which takes up so much of their time and gives them – and everyone else involved – so much pleasure.
Mike is a Special Needs Teaching Assistant and Chairman of Spartans FC, which is based at Newfield School in Norton Lees, affiliated to Special Olympics GB and to the Sheffield and Hallamshire County FA.
Darren runs Club Doncaster Titans, affiliated to Doncaster Rovers FC, and based at the Club Doncaster Sports Village. Darren has an autistic son, Jordan who is actively involved with the Club.
The guys have known each other a long time: Mike, a Cypriot, made Sheffield his home after living in London running a restaurant; Darren was his fish supplier in Doncaster.
Mike takes up the history. “The Ability Counts Project was launched in 1999 as one of the FA’s key strategic objectives to give playing opportunities to disabled people; and back then, it was regionally organised.”
“All that changed in 2010-2011, when the Ability Counts Leagues moved from regional to County Leagues,” Mike told us. “A Sheffield and Hallamshire competition run by the County FA, with five-a-side matches being played at venues around South Yorkshire until 2016/7 when the League became independent, led by the current committee.”
Mike and Darren do a terrific job running the League. “No disrespect to the County FA at all, but we quickly realised we could do a decent job too,” Mike quipped.
Safety and safeguarding are key, and the registration process is thorough and professional. All players must carry identity cards.
The League was then split into its current format being divided into a 7-a-side Pan-Disability League for the more able players and a 5-a-side League for players with learning disabilities, including autism. Leagues are run on consecutive weeks, once per month, played on consecutive weeks.
The seven-a-side League, has three Divisions and plays at Concord Sports Centre in Sheffield. The five-a-side League has two Divisions and venues alternate between Doncaster Goals Centre and Sheffield Goals Centre.
“We have 28 teams and just over 300 Pan–disability players registered for this season which started in October. Clubs pay a match day fee; the Sheffield Trophy Centre supplies the end of season medals; while the Twenty-two football shop provides the match balls,” Darren explained.
The player numbers have increased year on year and Mike and Darren are incredibly grateful to the scores of volunteers who help the games run without a hitch. “ We want to continue to grow the League – but we have also now provided a ‘participation pitch’ for players who just want to play friendly matches in a safe environment.”
Mike’s team, Spartans, were Champions of the five-a-side League two years ago; but it did take them some time to hit their stride. “It took us two and a half years to win our first game,” he admitted.
Ask Darren and Mike about their most important moment from the SYACL in recent years and neither of them hesitate.
This was when Ian Hemmingham tragically collapsed and died at a five-a-side League event. “Ian had played for 4 teams in the League over the past 15 years – including Sheffield Wednesday when they had a team – and he even travelled to join the Titans from Doncaster for a short period.” Mike remembers, “he was always extremely popular amongst other players and always had a smile on his face. Involved as a player in the 5-a-side fixtures he would always travel to Concord Sports Centre the previous week to watch the 7-a-side fixtures, enjoying the socialising aspect and cheering on the other teams.”
Living in MENCAP supported housing care with other disabled people, Ian was honoured by a minute’s silence at both 5-a–side and 7-a-side fixtures. “The League supported a memorial tournament in the summer also raising money for MENCAP; and we have named the 5-a-side Championship Trophy in his honour. It is now known as ‘The Milkshake Trophy’ after Ian’s nickname, because of his fondness for milkshakes,” Darren told us.
At the end of last year there was regional – and national – recognition for Darren when he was named the Unsung Hero for the BBC Yorkshire Region.
Darren joined unsung heroes from the other BBC Regions at the annual BBC Sports Personality of the Year event in Aberdeen. The award left Darren stunned at the time. He told the BBC “It’s not often I cry … fancy making me cry on TV. I just want to say thank you to everyone. I am over the moon as you can see.
I was gobsmacked – it’s nice to be recognised. To be nominated was a massive thing in itself but to actually win it … words cannot say enough for me.
I don’t do it for awards, I do it for the kids and adults. It started because of my son. I was a parent getting involved because I wanted to get my son a game of football and that’s it. The reception we’ve had since starting in Doncaster and how much it’s grown in these five years just shows how much it was needed here.”
Attending one of the League events it is immediately obvious how superbly well organised the day is. Mike and Darren are meticulous in their preparation, keeping in regular contact with all team officials; with each game allocated to a specific pitch with a designated referee. You’ll see them touring the venue, making sure everything is in order, but also keeping an eye on how the Spartans and the Doncaster Titans are performing. The standard of play is high and there is enthusiastic encouragement of both teams during play and both sides are clapped off at the end of each game after having their photographs taken together.
As an excellent example of the benefits the League brings to its participants, Mike told us more about his own son, Paul. There were early fears that Paul, who suffered developmental delays as part of his condition might never be able to walk. However, Mike shared with us, “over the years aided by intensive physiotherapy Paul has developed physically and has since participated in a number of sports. He represented the Yorkshire and Humberside teams in swimming, basketball and football at the last three National Special Olympic Games in Leicester, Bath and Sheffield. We were all especially proud when he was chosen to represent Great Britain at a European Football Special Olympics tournament in Denmark.”
“Paul gets so much satisfaction from the local League match days,” Mike explained. “The days not only give him the opportunity of playing in a structured Football League, but they give him the chance to socialise, engage with his peers, develop emotionally, and form strong and close relationships with teammates and opponents.”
“Without the SYACL, all this would never have happened”.
So, there you are; a brilliant League which reflects so much credit on Darren and Mike and we will keep our readers up to date with the progress of the season here at the SYACL Website.
Mike and Darren are looking for qualified volunteers to help with the participation pitches on match days. If you’re interested, you can contact them via this website contact form.
Seven-a-side matches take place at Sheffield Concord, and five-a–side games at Goals Doncaster and Goals Sheffield.
Why not take a look,
Meanwhile why not take a look and follow both their clubs:
And all the other clubs that participate in South Yorkshire Ability Counts League. It would mean so much to all the players.