'CP football gives you the confidence not to hide your disability and shows you can do amazing things'
This is Football: Liam Irons x Dylan
Football is for everyone. This is football.
My name is Liam Irons, I’m 31 and I play for the England Cerebral Palsy football team.
When I look back, I was quite lucky to become involved with CP football really. In 2015 I was playing mainstream football on a Saturday when the opposition’s assistant manager came over to me. He had CP and when you have it, you notice certain things so he came up to me after the game and said: ‘Do you have CP by any chance?’ And he asked if I had ever been in touch with the England CP football team.
So he gave me a few email addresses, I emailed Jeff Davis [the FA’s former National Development Manager] and I came up to St. George’s Park for a camp. I struggled at first to be honest because it is a completely different game and I didn’t know what to expect. But I carried on working at it and four months later I went to Rio for the Paralympics. So it is fair to say it was a big turnaround for me!
Unfortunately I can’t remember the exact name of the assistant manager who helped me out. But I think I owe him a beer some time! To think, all it would have taken was for me not to have played in that game or for him not to have been there at that time and it all might not have ever happened!
I was around 25 at the time so I was a late starter to CP football and I’m gutted about it to be honest because I speak to the lads and the places that they have been to and the experiences they have had, I could have had the same since I was in my early 20s or even before that maybe. But I just didn’t know it existed because I didn’t used to watch the Paralympics or anything like that.
That is why things like the FA’s Football Your Way plan are massive. There are definitely players out there like me who play mainstream football and like I used to, try to hide their disability because you just want to be a normal kid and play mainstream football like the other kids. But with all the extra information and awareness that we can put out there, hopefully they can go on to be the next England player like me, even if they do come into the game late like I did because they can still have several years of playing left.
For me, when I was growing up, you just want to get on and play with all your mates and you don’t really want your disability to be shown. But then being around other people with the same disability as you, it does wonders for your confidence because you are around other people with CP and feel like ‘wow, I’m not the only one here’.
Being around squads like this England CP squad makes you accept your disability so much better, and it gives you that confidence to be disabled and know there is nothing wrong with it, you don’t need to hide it and you can do amazing things with your disability. It is very important for disabled people to be around other disabled people because it gives you more self-confidence.
Playing for England is a massive honour. To be part of such an elite squad and go to the places that we go to for competitions, you would not have those opportunities even if you were playing at a good standard of Saturday football. You would never get this level of treatment, with top physios, video analysis, goalkeeper coaches, sports scientists and the like. It is an unreal set-up and I certainly don’t take it for granted.
I grew up in Dunstable and Luton, in Bedfordshire, playing football in the Luton area. My first adult team was The 61 FC (Luton), which was step 6 when I played for them and they are now in step 7. I played a lot of games for them and played Sunday football with my mates as well at times.
In 11-a-side football I play as a left back and I used to play as a defender in seven-a-side football as part of a two at the back but more recently I have been pushed further forward on to the right wing, which is a bit more exciting!
When I first came into CP football, I thought I was relatively fit. I was playing in mainstream football, training on Tuesdays, Thursdays and playing Saturdays, and also playing Sundays sometimes, so I thought it was going to be easy. But it was such a wake-up call. It is up-down, up-down and always concentrating and moving, so you have to be super fit to play CP football.
It’s interesting because you can play 11-a-side football at a good standard and potentially get away with drifting in games but in CP football you cannot fall asleep for one minute because it is like chess because there is so much movement. You slip up for one minute and someone is behind you to score.
The 2022 IFCPF World Cup in Salou, Barcelona, will be my fifth major tournament, having also gone to the Rio 2016 Paralympics, the 2017 World Championships in Argentina, 2018 EUROs in Netherlands and 2019 World Cup in Seville. We have a more younger squad now but the quality is still there. We have a really good squad and we can compete with the best teams.
I can’t wait for the CP World Cup to begin. We always put ourselves up there and compete in medal matches and we are at that level where we are competing with the best teams in every tournament. So we will take it game-by-game in this World Cup, try to win the group first thing and then whoever we get in the knockout stages, go out there and show we can compete with the best teams in the world.