Football: The world game at their feet

Nick Townsend reports on the special footballers who at last have the chance to represent their country

IF FATE had not intervened, you could have imagined Robert McKay, a lanky, inventive midfielder, developing into quite a talented footballer. An able- bodied one, that is. Maybe for West Ham, whom he supports.

But Robert was the victim of a bad road accident when he was seven and ever since he has had learning difficulties - although you'd hardly know it to look or speak to him - and works in a garden centre in Sonning Common, Oxfordshire. He also does a little gardening for people he knows. "The accident set me back and I can't read or write properly," he explained. "I can't concentrate very well."

When Robert was growing up, and even still today, there are those who perceive him in a rather more ignorant and cruel light. "There are kids brighter than you who take the mickey because you are slow. People call me an idiot but I just laugh at them." He pauses for a few seconds. "You've got to rise above it and think to yourself: `I'm better than them. How many of them have played football for England?' "

For Robert, 31, one of the oldest players in a team who have all suffered similar afflictions, similar prejudices, the stage was theirs on Thursday evening when they gave the ultimate response to such reactions. As they strode out at Filbert Street, in the replica England strip of Shearer and Owen et al, to face the might of Holland, it was before an unnervingly partial and vocal 14,500, said to be the largest crowd for a disabled sporting event apart from the opening of the 1996 Paralympics.

It was the opening game of the 1998 World Cup for Players with Learning Difficulties, an inaugural tournament for the 15 nations from five continents, so nobody really knew what to expect. But England knew what was expected of them in their demeanour - perhaps rather more than their able-bodied counterparts. "We can have a drink but we have got to be sensible and not be up till two before a game," Robert said. "We've got to be disciplined on and off the field and remember we're representing our country. We're looked upon to set an example because we're the host nation. It doesn't matter what level you're playing at, you've got to take it seriously."

He added: "I'm sure we're going to do well. The spirit is great. We played some friendlies against able-bodied college sides and did very well. Although we lost we weren't disgraced. When you put on an England shirt it is a great honour, whether it's our team, or the proper squad, you're the best otherwise you wouldn't be there. It's just as important for us to go out and win."

The tournament, being staged over the next two and a half weeks at a cost of pounds 1m, at league and non-league grounds throughout the Midlands, has been four years in its genesis. The chief executive of the Association of Players with Learning Difficulties, Terry Harrison, first formulated the idea and one of his first acts was to ask Gary Lineker to be patron. "When I arrived back from Japan," Lineker said, "I got involved because I became aware that there was practically no availability of football for these people. It's gone from strength to strength and now goes right through from those with profound difficulties to these lads in the World Cup."

The players, who have all been to special schools, or studied in remedial classes, and many of whom are attending college to learn a trade, have had to qualify to participate by taking a special type of IQ test. "These lads have the opportunity to play for England that other people never get," Steve Ramage, the England coach, said before the game. "It's their France 98. It will give them a great boost and help their confidence, and I hope they get as much support as the able-bodied England team because it will drive them on."

Ramage works as a projects co-ordinator developing activities through leisure, education and employment for people with a learning disability in Wigan and holds an FA preliminary coaching badge. And his players clearly find him an influential force. His words are heeded, with the crowd brought to its feet by an impressive opening ceremony involving 1,300 performers from the east Midlands. The teams were welcomed in by the sports minister, Tony Banks.

Once the game started it was evident that the Dutch had the flair and technique of their able-bodied brethren, but England had a doughty rearguard with the captain, David Lyons, a model of defiance. The first half was finely balanced until, at the end of a move instigated by Robert McKay, Brian Wheeldon beat the keeper with a splendidly incisive finish. He celebrated by diving full length, a la Jurgen Klinsmann. Who could blame him? At half-time Lineker questioned whether he would have put it away. "Don't know... on my left foot? I'd have probably lashed it wide," he grinned.

The play was a blend of skill and clumsiness but probably of superior quality than most spectators would have imagined. "That's what you'd expect from people whose thought processes are a bit slow," Lineker said. "But they've got every right to go out there and enjoy it. You and I have got the choice. If we want to play football at any level we can go out and kick a ball around. But for a lot of people that's not the case. That's what this charity encompasses and this World Cup is all about. It goes right down the scale. You get the kids who can barely do anything, but they still want to kick a ball.

"When you pin a badge on them after they have improved a bit it gives a massive amount of satisfaction."

Malcolm Reilly made it two for England before Holland reduced the arrears just before the whistle. The home dressing-room afterwards was "electric" according to Ramage, but the players knew they were not in the quarter- finals yet. There is South Africa to face on Thursday evening at the home of Shepshed Dynamo FC. Then only two more games before they reach the final. Are you watching, Glenn Hoddle?

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