Dream Wembley visit for inspirational Rhys
Inspirational 13-year-old Rhys was able to live out his dream of playing at Wembley Stadium connected by EE this week as he continues to raise awareness of disability in football.
Rhys lives with cerebral palsy and epilepsy but doesn’t let that stop him from playing football for a local team and earlier this year set up a TikTok account to share videos of his impressive saves.
However, one of the videos from a tournament in Surrey ended up going viral and unfortunately Rhys received several messages including vile abuse.
Rhys admits the videos did make him sad but responded admirably by supporting the Make it Count campaign for the disability equality charity Scope, where he committed to making 20 saves every day to coincide with the Paralympic Games and encouraged friends and family to do similar tasks.
Rhys has raised more than £7,500 so far and on Thursday afternoon had the chance to visit Wembley Stadium and meet three stars of the England cerebral palsy men’s team; Matt Crossen, the current England CP captain; Paralympian and prolific goal-scorer David Porcher, and fellow goalkeeper Giles Moore.
After having a tour of the stadium, which included visiting the dressing rooms, Rhys then took to the pitch and faced shots from the three England CP stars.
Rhys said: “It’s been amazing to come to Wembley. Going on the pitch and in the dressing room has been a dream and it was phenomenal to meet the England CP players.”
How to play disability football
Reflecting on the abuse he received earlier this year, Rhys added: “I was upset at first but that morning I had to put it behind me for a couple of hours because I had school. But when I got home, there was more and it made me quite sad.
“It’s made me help with more equality for disabled people and everyone. I think you should have the same equal rights in sport. I don’t want this to happen to any other people.”
CP football is played by ambulant players with cerebral palsy and other neurological disorders such as stroke and traumatic brain injury, and is played by seven players in a team and on shorter pitches.
Crossen was playing semi-professional football in 2013 when he suffered a stroke, leaving the left side of his body paralysed and he had to learn how to walk and talk again.
After a lot of work in the gym, he now plays non-league 11-a-side football alongside captaining the England CP men’s team but does so without the feeling in his arm and leg.
Thursday afternoon was also the first time the three England CP players had the chance to play on the pitch at Wembley Stadium.
And Crossen said: “It’s unbelievable. Obviously it is a dream come true for anyone to be on the pitch at Wembley Stadium but then to have the chance to meet Rhys as well, he is an inspiration.
“I had read about his story and when you read about someone you don’t normally have the chance to then meet them.
“I had heard all the stories about him and read about everything he has done – raising more than £7,000 – and it is unbelievable.
“You pinch yourself on days like this.
“With him having cerebral palsy, obviously our sport is built around that and it is lovely to be able to give back in some way and have the chance to visit him.
“He is living the dream of every adult and kid right now, saving shots on the pitch at Wembley – it is brilliant.”
It was a sentiment echoed by England CP striker Porcher, who also represented Team GB at Rio 2016.
“It has been brilliant. It has been a very special day,” Porcher said.
“We know what Rhys has been through. It was very sad and not very nice. So we have managed to make a positive out of a bad situation for him.
“Rhys has had a great day by the looks of it and so have we. We have really enjoyed it and it is lovely to see Wembley.
“Everyone in the UK I imagine dreams of playing at Wembley Stadium and it is brilliant. I have loved it.
“It is an amazing place, it has been an amazing day but most importantly this has been all for Rhys. I hope that he has had the day that he deserves.
“This has quietened them. He has said ‘screw you, I am doing my own thing’ and it is amazing. It says a lot about Rhys and I think good on him and he should keep doing what he is doing.”
The FA will outline its commitment to develop and grow disability football in all formats and at all levels in the coming months, creating and sustaining a culture where disabled people have access to opportunities, feel safe and feel like they truly belong.
The launch of the three-year plan will outline the organisation’s intentions to create a more diverse and inclusive workforce from inside The FA and out, and from top to bottom, whilst also growing participation, increasing the number and quality of coaches, developing an inclusive and diverse talent pathway, increasing support for elite players and raising the profile of disability football at every level.
England CP goalkeeper Moore was introduced to the CP talent pathway after his school teacher contacted the FA and described having the chance to meet Rhys as ‘inspirational’.
Moore said: “Rhys is an amazing lad and we’re here for him. The online abuse he received was obviously not acceptable so we’re here for support and to tell him that we are all 100% behind him.
“He’s coming along to our camp at St George’s Park next month and it’ll be great to spend some more time with him and for him to see us in action.”
England CP men’s team have not played a fixture since 2019 due to the situation around Covid but are due to meet up once again in October ahead of what they hope will be their first fixture in two years.
Like the men’s and women’s senior and age group teams, the England CP squad train at St. George’s Park and have been busy training to individual programmes through the pandemic as they build towards the CP World Cup next year.
What is CP football?
Players and coaching staff of the England cerebral palsy team give us a detailed explanation of how the game is played and about the physical challenges CP footballers face.
Crossen said he couldn’t wait to get back on the pitch with England and to see Rhys once again at an upcoming camp.
“The abuse Rhys received, it should never happen in society and it is horrible to see. We see about it on a scale and hear about it but to see it first hand, it is horrible,” Crossen added.
“It is huge what he has done. There are adults who play mainstream football and struggle to handle the abuse so for him to have his disability and still come through all the abuse, it is inspiring to see what he has done and how he has gone above and beyond.
“Everyone who doubted him and has been horrible towards him, he has basically stood up to them and moved mountains. It is fantastic what he has done.
“He has a massive smile on his face with his England kit on in the goal and it is just fantastic.”