Football: Appeal of the other Chelsea

Hester Lacey meets the players hoping to raise the Wembley curtain
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The Independent Online
DEAN HEFFER lost his left leg to football 15 years ago. "I was kicked on the ankle, a cyst came up, and they thought it would spread through my body, like cancer, so they had to take the leg off. I was eight or nine at the time." He was not put off the game for long, however. "I've played all my life and I love it. I soon got back into it." Now Heffer is one of the star players of the newly formed London Chelsea Disabled Football Team, a venture sponsored and supported by their big brothers in the Premier League.

The Chelsea squad are the first disabled football set-up in the south of England, and also the first to be officially backed by a side from the Premiership itself. Formed in March this year, the club already boast six players from the British national disabled squad, of whom three have represented Britain in the Paralympics. This makes them a formidable force on the pitch. "We often play able-bodied against disabled, and we have never lost to an able-bodied team," says their coach Steve Keen.

Last Tuesday evening, the team were practising in the grounds of St Mary's Hospital, Roehampton, though they also train at Stamford Bridge. Out on the pitch, the game was fast and furious; it was hard to tell at first glance which were the Chelsea players and which were their able- bodied opponents. "We don't make any allowances," explained Leslie Smith, 34, the left-back, an Olympic squad veteran whose right side has been damaged by cerebral palsy. "We play by normal rules and everything counts - you don't think `Oh, I won't tackle him, he's got a bad leg.' It's not a soft option; in some of the games we've played, the people watching didn't realise we were disabled until they saw us walking about afterwards."

"It's more friendly in training, but you're out there to win," agreed Lee Deegan, 23, the Stamford Bridge groundsman and Great Britain disabled squad player. Deegan, who has cerebral palsy, is the team chairman and plays right-back. "This is only training - a gentle kickabout," he added, as Heffer, who plays in midfield, skidded hard to the ground behind him in pursuit of a wide ball.

The support offered by Chelsea FC is crucial, according to the team captain and striker Andy Tricker, 30, an amputee who has lost an ankle and foot. "It's exciting being attached to a big club; most of us support Chelsea and it's given us an extra lift and an extra meaning to the game. We recently played an able-bodied team of 17- and 18-year- olds and we beat them 7-0."

Simon Watson, 20, who has scoliosis of the back and radial club hands, is a winger, and one of the team's newest recruits. "I've been playing for six weeks. I was in the pub, and Lee had seen me playing in the park, so he asked me to come along. I said yes, turned up at Stamford Bridge, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The exercise is a buzz, and I enjoy wearing the Chelsea badge - it's pride, I suppose."

Last weekend, the team had travelled to Belgium to take part in an international tournament, where they drew with the Dutch winners. There are well-established national disabled football leagues in Belgium and Holland. Keen and his team would like to see a similar system in this country.

"There are teams in the north, in Middlesbrough, Nottingham, Stockport and Coventry - it's a challenge for the big clubs to take up."

The Chelsea team, who are funded partly by Chelsea FC and partly by other local sponsors, are pioneers in that they welcome all players with disabilities. Up to now funding for disabled football has been granted to specific groups such as cerebral palsy sufferers and amputees, which has meant that the game has been "non-existent" at club level, according to Keen. "We're copying the Dutch and Belgian multi-disability leagues, which work very well."

At the moment there are 17 regulars who turn up to training sessions twice a week. They are keen to recruit.

"We've got the basis of a good squad, but we need a few extra for a good side," Heffer says. Like any other club, there is a bond between the players that goes beyond the game. "We get on well, it's friendly, we go socialising," Deegan adds. "We are just footballers who happen to be disabled."

Their goal at the moment is to play an exhibition match against their Middlesbrough disabled team counterparts before the Cup final at Wembley on Saturday.

"There are a quarter of a million potential disabled team players in the south of England alone," Keen says. "We want everyone to know about us."

For more information on London Chelsea Disabled Football Team, telephone 0181-878 9713.