In winning the FA People’s Cup 2017, Exeter City FC’s Ability Counts team has elevated the profile of disability sport
Story first published in Devon Life
When footballer Matthew Moxey walked out onto the pitch at Wembley Stadium, during half time at the FA Cup final in front of 90,000 spectators, to collect the trophy he and his team mates had won in the recent FA People’s Cup, it signified so much more than winning a game of football.
“Our players come from all different backgrounds, and have varying disabilities and other issues they deal with on a daily basis,” says Will Allan, 38, disability officer and one of the team’s coaches. “But they just want to play football like anyone else, and the time they spend playing football is a release both mentally and physically. Winning a national competition like this is proof that you can achieve high, despite your disabilities.”
Thanks to captain Sam Elson, Matthew Moxey, Steven Rowland, Josh Coles, Jason Alford, Sam Couch and Conon Adamson, Exeter City FC’s adult male disability Premiership category team is officially the best amateur team in the country.
The prestigious, five-a-side amateur tournament was held in Birmingham in April and the team’s triumph secured them coveted tickets to the 2017 FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Chelsea, during which they were presented their trophy.
A record 45,000 amateur players took part in this season’s competition across 16 categories, with Exeter City reigning triumphant against South Tyneside Ability FC with a 4 – 1 victory.
The Disability Premiership team’s win was the biggest achievement for Exeter’s Ability Counts set up so far.
“The team’s achievement has helped raise the profile of disability sports nationally,” Will tells me when we meet at St James Park office. “Wearing the Grecians badge meant a lot to them. They’ve helped put Exeter on the map.”
After qualifying locally and regionally, all 10-minute games at the national competition took place on the same day.
“On competition day, by the time of the final we were absolutely flying, but we almost didn’t get there,” Will reveals. “We just scraped through to the semi-finals in the group stages, by virtue of goal difference and our head-to-head record in the group stages.
“But when we went into the semis and the final, the pressure was off in a way, so we could get back to playing our own game. The 4 – 1 score reflects how well they played. It was an exciting match, I felt very proud of them and it’s a testament to their commitment throughout the season.
“Putting together the team on the day wasn’t as easy we you might think,” Will adds. We didn’t have our regular goal keeper at the tournament, so one of our strikers, Conon offered to take over in goal and played a key part in the team winning; in the qualifiers he kept a clean sheet in a key match, and in the semi final he saved a penalty giving us a 1 – 0 win, which was integral to us making it to the final.
“So there are lots of life skills gained through the game too, including the mentality of the importance of working together for the greater good.
“Moxey’s an Exeter lad,” continues Will. “He’s been with us from the start and is a credit to the club. And he put everyone else forward to collect the trophy, so it was fitting he went to collect it.”
Exeter City FC has had pan-disability teams for 12 years and players are on the increase.
The men’s disability Premiership team, managed by John Coles, is a seven-a-side team and constitutes guys with mental health and learning difficulties, “though you’d never suspect by watching them play football”.
The club is part of the Devon FA disability league, which provides a more structured environment for people with wide-ranging disabilities to play.
Exeter City FC is one of the most disabled friendly venues in the UK, and one of the best providers of disability football of the 92 league clubs countrywide. “For a fan owned club, without tons of money, we punch above our weight,” says Will, who is clearly passionate about the benefits football is bringing to his players’ lives.
The club also runs a free weekly session for people suffering with mental health related issues including drug and alcohol abuse, for which some participants may be homeless. It’s open to anyone who wants to go.
“They know they have one hour of football a week to look forward to,” Will says. “For that hour, they can forget whatever is going on in their lives.
“Benefits include the structure it brings to their lives, the social aspect and the positive effect physical exercise has on their mental health.
“What I’ve noticed is that, our players in the Ability Counts league are far more tolerant then most, because of their own issues. I learn a lot from their outlook and attitude.
“To be able to play football is a massive deal,” Will adds. “A lot of our members may face limitations elsewhere in their lives, for example they may not be able to work or drive, so for them to play football in a non-judgemental and supportive environment is fulfilling both mentally and physically.
“Knowing their backgrounds, I feel strongly that football is more than just a game for them.”
Exeter’s Ability Counts teams are part of Exeter City FC’s charitable arm, the Exeter City Community Trust (formerly Exeter City FC Football in the Community), and has to secure its own funding.
The league has around 90 members and includes five adult men’s teams, an adult women’s team, an adult deaf team and an adult wheelchair team with eight players.
Plans are in place for a youth deaf team for the coming season and players are currently being sought for the amputee team.
Will Allan’s role as disability officer for the club, has been secured for three years due to funding from the English Football League Trust’s Every Player Counts programme.