‘Finding deaf football was a life-changing moment for me’
England and Great Britain Deaf team star Claire Stancliffe discusses how a surprise message changed her life forever
With 3 December marking International Day of People with Disabilities, we sat down with England Deaf star Claire Stancliffe to discuss her life and just how important deaf football has been to her.
The 32-year-old has won medals at the Deaflympics, World Championships and European Championships during her career and has played a huge role in helping growing her sport.
(With thanks to Chris Wetton at besq (picture above) and Marc Aspland at The Times for providing imagery)
I was born in Reading and moved to Devon and then back to Reading up until I was eight years old and since then I have been living in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire.
My Mum and Dad were always big football fans so it was always on the tele and I always enjoyed playing it in the park with my friends. When I was in my primary school, they actually had a boys’ and girls’ team which was really unusual back then so I started playing for both around the age of seven.
I lost my hearing when I was around four and a half years old and we don’t really know what caused it, that was never concluded, which is actually something I have always wanted closure on but unfortunately can’t have.
From a really young age I just adapted so well to being deaf that it didn’t really impact me and I didn’t realise just how deaf I was. I felt normal. That is where football came into it because I was seen as a normal person. My hearing loss didn’t impact on that. At school I had to have radio aids and things like that which the teachers had to wear, which was quite embarrassing for a child, but in football I didn’t need any of that. I was just a normal child and I think that was where my real love of football came from.
It wasn’t until I was about 16 when I started to struggle with my hearing and I started to realise just how much I was missing out on. When I went to sixth form, my statement of special needs got taken away from me because I did so well in my GCSE results so they assumed I didn’t need it. But then it contributed to me failing my AS levels because I didn’t have the support. I went to college and university but because I was struggling so much I decided to get a cochlear implant.
The implant has helped me massively. There is a misconception that it makes you hear fully but it doesn’t. It is not the same as natural hearing. It gives me a wider range of sounds but I still need to lipread when it comes to people’s speech.
Just recently I have noticed a deterioration in that so at the moment I am finding it quite difficult, especially with the masks situation. In the last 18 months or so it has changed the way I go about my daily life because I avoid it. I stick to online shopping now, not because of the risk of Covid but because of the fear of not being able to understand someone. It is quite isolating and it is a hidden disability because people don’t understand or realise that I am not being ignorant. I just can’t hear and I don’t understand what you are saying.
But I am able to express myself with football, whereas I probably didn’t do that in my daily life. I keep myself to myself, I stay in my shell unless I am with deaf people, which is when I come out of my shell a bit because I feel when I am around other deaf people that they understand people have different communication needs, such as sign language. But when I am playing football, when I am on that pitch, I am a different person.
I didn’t know anyone who was deaf until I was about 18 and then randomly I was contacted by another 18-year-old who was similar to me, in that she had a cochlear implant, and she said ‘O you like football. Do you want to come and play for my deaf team in this tournament? There will be loads of other deaf people there.’ So I thought ‘yeah I will give that a go’ and it was while I was there that the England head coach was there scouting players and after that tournament she came up to me and said ‘can I have your contact details?’ and it has gone from there really.
So I got scouted in 2007 and then we went to Germany for an international friendly in May 2008 and then a month later we went to the World Cup in Greece, where we won a bronze medal, which was great.
That 18 months was incredible. It was a life-changing moment. It is only now that I look back and realise just how much of an impact that has had on my life. It genuinely has been life-changing. When I first started in the team, I didn’t know sign language, I couldn’t communicate with the players but now I can have a conversation with anyone in sign language. It has improved things like my confidence and that has transferred into my daily job. I am a senior sport coach for Northamptonshire Sport, so I go into primary schools to deliver PE lessons and very soon I will be starting another role alongside that where I will be project managing girls’ football across the county.
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After the World Cup in 2008, the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf decided that home nations couldn’t enter international tournaments, so it had to be Great Britain for the Euros, World Cups and Deaflympics. So obviously as you can imagine, like we have seen with the Olympics, there are problems which come with that and it became really complicated. So from 2009 to 2017, we were self-funded footballers.
In 2012 we were told we couldn’t go to the World Cup because we didn’t have the funding and I remember sitting at home watching the World Cup games live on YouTube thinking ‘that should be us out there.’ It was heart-breaking knowing that was taken away from us because we didn’t have the funding.
Then in 2015 just before Christmas the committee said to me ‘we can’t got to the World Cup because we don’t have the funding’ and it was something which I just could not accept. So I said to them ‘give me 30 days and if I can make half of the money, can we send the team to the World Cup?’ They kind of laughed at me and said I was crazy but I wanted to give it a go and we ended up raising £18,000 in 30 days and we were able to send the squad to the World Cup six months later!
As part of our fundraising campaign, just before New Year’s Eve Jack Butland donated £5,000 and it sent the campaign viral. It was on Sky Sports News, it was even in the news in Singapore, and that was why we could raise £18,000 in such a short space of time. Shortly after, James Milner gave us another £5,000 which meant we were able to fully fund the squad for the World Cup.
We needed to do some more fundraising for the 2017 Deaflympics and that was when the FA gave us £40,000 to go towards it. It was a massive help and without that we wouldn’t have been able to go and then Gary Neville gave us £20,000, which was amazing. It was a bigger campaign but were successful.
That tournament we did so well to get to where we did. We got to the bronze medal match and I won the toss so I thought ‘this is a great start’ but a minute after the whistle went unfortunately my legs gave way and I damaged my ACL, MCL, LCL and another tendon.
It took me 18 months and two operations to get back playing. When I came back and I had the initial assessments, two or three medical professionals told me it would be unlikely that I will play again. It was heart-breaking because you have come back from a major tournament empty handed with a bad injury – that was bad enough as it was – but to then be stuck at home on the sofa 24/7 and to be told you wouldn’t be able to play again, it was soul destroying. But I was very lucky to have the right support around me to get me through that.
I was fortunate that I again was able to fundraise to have the operation early and I was told that if I hadn’t of had the surgery early then I probably would have had to retire from football because it was such a long waiting list.
I ended up being quite lucky that there were not any competitions in that time. We were meant to have a Euros planned for 2019 but that was cancelled for a reason I’m not aware of and then with Covid the World Cup in South Korea for 2020 has been moved to May 2023 and the Deaflympics was meant to be last year but that should be next year now in May in Brazil.
I’m often asked what is my best achievement and I always struggle to answer the question. But I don’t think you can beat your debut. The fact I scored four goals in that game as well, as a 19-year-old, was incredible. And then the one which follows that closely is the World Cup in 2016 where we had all the fundraising and I was captain as we got bronze. After all that work, it was fantastic.
Looking ahead to the future, we are probably one of the top teams in the competitions we play in and we believe we should be medalling in every competition. There is a lot of hard work which needs to be done and we have a lot of youngsters coming into the team but I feel really confident that with hard work we can do really well.
My hopes for the sport as a whole is that we can raise awareness of the sport. When you look at the Lionesses and how Baroness Sue Campbell has helped really drive that forward and I am hoping with Baroness Sue Campbell helping on the disability side now, we can really drive the sport forward and show the next generation what can be achieved.
When I look back as a child, I was probably missing that. I didn’t meet another deaf person until I was 18 years old and I think if I had known about deaf football when I was a lot younger, that would have had a big impact on my life. When you look at the impact that Rose Ayling-Ellis from Strictly Come Dancing is having on children and adults, the interest in British Sign Language has increased to something like 400 per cent.
Having the visibility of deaf people and deaf sport is the only way we are going to improve things like that for the next generation.
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