A 10-year-old blind football ace who “never believed she could achieve anything in sports” is hoping to turn professional when she’s older and bag “thousands of goals” after being inspired by the Lionesses’ Euro 2022 victory.
While Sheffield United supporter Niamh Howell has always loved kicking a ball about, she struggled to do anything physical after being diagnosed with optic nerve hypoplasia when she was three months old.
The condition means she only has vision up to 20cm ahead of her right eye and no vision at all in her left.
But when Manchester City star striker Chloe Kelly scored an extra-time winner for England against Germany in the final of the European Championships in July this year, Niamh said she realised that young women like herself could go on to “achieve anything”.
The 10-year-old from Sheffield, South Yorkshire, trains once a week to play blind football and hopes to one day join the National Blind Football League and eventually compete in the Paralympics.
Niamh’s mother Georgia Howell, 28, who also lives with chef Connor Liggins, 25, and their three-month-old son Luca, has been told by coaches that her daughter “could be playing for England by the time she is 18”.
Niamh said: “My whole life I have always felt like I was being held back, I could never play sports with my classmates because I couldn’t see.
“But when the Lionesses won the Euros, it made me realise I could achieve what I wanted. As a young woman, anything was possible.
“The win meant so much to me – and I loved that the women won before the men did.
“Football has given me a passion, a goal, and I hope to score thousands of goals.”
When Niamh was born, doctors were not aware that she had any issues with her vision, but full-time mum Georgia said she knew something was “not right” when she was two months old as her eyes were “shaking” and she “never looked up, or at any lights”.
It wasn’t until Niamh was three months old that medics diagnosed her with optic nerve hypoplasia, a condition where the optic nerve is not connected which usually causes children to have a “serious visual impairment”, according to the NHS.
While Niamh struggled with sports and physical activities, as she struggled to “see faces” and could never tell if someone was “happy or sad”, she excelled at maths in school.
But her true passion, from age seven, was football.
She said: “I used to play football in school when I was younger, but I was never very good. I always had passion but never had a chance to do anything.
“If I am running, I can’t see where I am going, so I need someone running with me.
“In football, when I do see the ball I run to it and it’s gone.
“I can’t really see faces, I can never see if someone is happy or sad. I have to go off the tone of voice.
“But it was always so fun, even if it seemed impossible for me.”
Everything changed for Niamh this summer, as the nation became engrossed in the incredible performances by the Lionesses which saw them win the first major international trophy for any England team — male or female — since 1966.
Since the summer, she started training each week with a football coach in the area who specialises in blind football and has been told she could be playing for England by the time she’s a teenager.
Blind football is a non-contact sport and seven-a-side as opposed to 11-a-side.
Some players have to wear blindfolds as there are varying degrees of blindness, in order to ensure it is a fair playing field.
The ball makes a rattling noise when it moves to help the players, which Niamh said sounds like “there are skittles in there”.
Niamh said: “I feel like this could be my future. I am good at goalscoring and good at defending.
“I am training every single week, and I feel really inspired and passionate.
“I feel like I can actually do something.”
The National Blind Football League currently features just three teams – Royal National College for the Blind, West Bromwich Albion Blind FC and Merseyside Blind FC – and Niamh spends each night researching the league and the sport.
She said: “It’s very new, there are only three teams. But I have been reading all about it. I do research every night.
“Merseyside just became champions and I was cheering. They’re who I support.
“For me, I don’t want to think too far ahead. I just want to get into the league first and play and see where it goes.
“But maybe in the future I could be in the Paralympics.”
While Niamh’s childhood has come with its “ups and downs”, her loving mother Georgia said she has never felt more proud of her.
Georgia said: “I feel overwhelming pride, as she has finally realised that she can achieve anything.
“As a parent, you always tell your children they can do it all but now she believes it herself.”
She added: “I always knew she was capable, but it was tough to make her believe it because her life was full of barriers and hurdles.
“All of the coaches have told me she has a bright future in football, and just how talented she is.
“People said she could be playing for England by the time she is 18, and it just melted my heart.”
Niamh and Georgia were invited by Guide Dogs for a football masterclass for the Blind Association in August this year, and are encouraging others to join the “incredible” experience.
You can find out more about the initiative at: www.guidedogs.org.uk/getting-support/help-for-children-and-families/