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?

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London