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FA finds funds for England Blind Team

Englands-blind-football-s-011guardianlogoEngland's blind footballers aiming for the top after FA unveils new pitch

A bespoke pitch for blind football has been opened at St George's Park as the FA continues an investment in disability sports that is already reaping dividends

On 8 September 2012, Dave Clarke scored for England's blind football team against Turkey in the play-off for seventh and eighth at the London Paralympics. England won 2-0 and the goal, in no small way, brought about the end of an era.

It was Clarke's 128th in 144 international appearances, made across 17 years, and doubled up as virtually his last competitive kick of a football. He retired afterwards; eight months later his status in the wider game was underlined in front of 90,000 at Wembley when he handed the FA Cup over to Wigan Athletic, but as an active role model for blind football he seemed a huge and remarkable act to follow.

On Tuesday, at St George's Park, Clarke donned his boots for the first time in two years and on this occasion it meant that an era had very much begun. This was no playing comeback for the 43-year-old – not officially, anyway. Clarke was lining up for an England Legends team against the current national side in a match arranged to officially open a new purpose-built blind football pitch at the FA's national football centre, whose second birthday fell this month.

It is the second such pitch to have been opened in England – the other is in Hereford at the Royal National College for the Blind – and will be used as the team's training base in the build-up to the 2015 European Championship which will be held in England, and beyond.

"It's absolutely brilliant that the pitch has been built and that the requirements of the blind football squad have been incorporated into St George's Park," Clarke tells the Guardian. "The fact that the team can now train there at a first-class facility that replicates what it will experience in championships will be a huge help."

Replication of the tournament environment – or, at least, its pitch specifications – is a running theme at St George's Park: Roy Hodgson's squad play on a pitch designed to Wembley's parameters, for instance. For the blind team, fine-tuning the length and width is only one of several requirements. The pitch, built over a five-week period in the summer, measures 40m by 20m – the same as a typical futsal pitch – but is flanked by barriers, 2.4m in height, that keep the ball in play and also facilitate players' echo location.

The surface is hard enough to allow the ball, heavier than a normal futsal ball, to run truly. It is situated in the quietest area of the complex, in a corner surrounded by trees, to shelter it from the wind and other extraneous influences that might hamper a player's ability to navigate his or her way around the pitch using their hearing. There is space behind the goals for the guides who instruct footballers during play; referees and spectators have also been thought of, although Hereford can hold more of the latter and matches at the European Championship will be held there.

"We have been lucky to have the pitch in Hereford," says Clarke, "although that didn't come until around 2008. Before that we were generally playing on normal five-a-side courts.

"There are lots of things that we've all had to work very hard to achieve, that I wish I'd had when I was growing up. This is one of them. When I was born it wasn't possible to play for your school, let along your county or your country, so the pathways through to elite sport are outstanding now and developments like this can only help. The FA have done a phenomenal job of driving blind football forward in England and across the world. We now have a professional squad training full-time at St George's Park with world-class facilities, and it's going to stand us in excellent stead for the Euros."

In addition to the new pitch, the FA has granted the national team £1m of funding over the next two years. It marks a significant, decisive turn from what were times of uncertainty this year when UK Sport announced a decision to pull funding from the blind team following a disappointing eighth-placed finish at last year's European Championship in Italy. That prompted an urgent brainstorming session among the FA board, which pledged to plug the gap with resources of its own. As well as the competitive element – and this has not been a remotely unsuccessful side, qualifying for every major tournament since 1996 – there was the fundamental and more pressing need to boost take-up nationally.

"There is an issue right across the country in terms of the availability of quality facilities for kids and adults to play blind football," says Clarke. "The more we have, the more sessions we can run and the more coaches we can train.

"Disabled sport is a very challenging field to try and grow because you're often trying to reach people who aren't aware of the opportunity, and aren't aware that not only would they quite like football but they'd be pretty good at it as well. It's about trying to get to those who are not conscious that the opportunity exists."

Jeff Davis, head of disability football at the FA, agrees that while the new pitch at St George's Park is a huge step forward it needs to be the start of a concerted drive to increase the number of state-of-the-art facilities.

"I think we need to place another one or two pitches across the country so that people don't have to travel so far for access to a bespoke blind pitch," he says. "Our regional centres have movable barriers, but there is nothing of such high quality. We'll work with our facilities team at the FA to see if we can get them in place.

"But this investment is a real example of how the FA has got behind disability football and a real beacon of good practice for all governing bodies in England. What it says is: 'You should be including disabled people in your sports provision.'"

England need to reach the final of the European Championship in order to reach the 2016 Paralympics. Davis says that the players have told him it is "the best training facility they have ever used, and the best surface", while Clarke points to the level of impact it could conceivably have in the longer term.

"At London 2012, six of the eight teams competing were full-time professionals," he says. "We weren't at that stage, but we still drew with Argentina, Spain and China, who all were.

"It's no surprise that since we went full-time we've beaten the European champions [Spain] three times and drawn with Brazil, the world and Paralympic champions. We're already seeing the benefits of that and the new pitch at St George's Park will only help our capability to challenge for honours. The team has some great players and a superb coach, John Pugh, who is a master tactician – so I'm sure they can make it happen."

Photograph: Jan Kruger - The Fa/The FA via Getty Images


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