England's Gino King aiming to live up to 'deaf de Bruyne' moniker
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Fittingly, the venue was City’s Etihad training complex, with King having agreed to attend a session as part of the new para-football squads which the Premier League champions were in the process of setting up at the time.
King represented the deaf team and quickly took his individual goals tally into double figures on the night, leading to an opponent giving the central midfielder a moniker he hasn’t forgotten.
“That [de Bruyne comparison] stuck with me,” he said. “But at the same time, I was thinking ‘is this really for me?’.
“Coming from the Wirral, driving over an hour, I needed more of a challenge. I thanked the co-ordinator for the opportunity but then, the following day, he sent me an email about an England open trial at Wolves’ training ground.
“I said to my dad I wasn’t too keen but he said ‘what have you got to lose?’ so I thought fair enough, I’ll see what’s what.”
Deaf football explained
Find out more on the format of football played by Gino and his Para Lions squad mates
The standard within the international set-up came as a pleasant surprise to King, who readily admits he had no idea what to expect.
“For the first ten minutes, I felt a bit out my depth,” he admits.
“I’d only played hearing football, so to begin with I was screaming at players and had no response.
“It was the first time I’d met Jamie [Clarke] and the other lads and it was great. From there, I was called back and became part of the build-up to the European Championships.
“It was something that I was quite lucky to be exposed to. I wish I’d have been exposed to deaf football from a younger age.”
King grew up in a sport-mad family in Noctorum, Prenton – his uncle, former goalkeeper Eric Nixon, made more than 500 senior appearances in a 22-year professional career while ex-WBA lightweight world champion Anthony Crolla is King’s cousin.
The power of football ❤️— England Football (@EnglandFootball) December 8, 2022
Reece, an 11-year-old deaf boy, was attacked at a bus stop by bullies on his way to school.
Players from the @England Deaf teams invited him to meet his heroes @JayyModel and @clairels1989 at England’s training camp at Lilleshall last weekend. pic.twitter.com/cUSqdsL6OK
As a youngster, King spent time in the academies of Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers and Chester but it took a break from football in his mid-teens – and a badly-timed injury – to reignite his love for the game.
“I was captain of the school rugby team, captain of the basketball team and playing handball for England,” he revealed.
“Rather than putting all my eggs in one basket, I wanted to play other sports. I was meant to go to Sweden for the U16 European Handball Championships but I broke my wrist in two places, which put rugby and handball off the radar.
“I was someone who needed to be playing sport so I got back into football, just playing for the school team with my mates. That gave me a second wind for it.”
As with his previous hiatus, he returned to football with a restored passion for the game and credits the discovery of deaf football – and particularly the England set-up – as key to keeping him in the sport from then on.
“By the time I was 22 or 23, I’d only met two or three deaf people in my life,” he said. “I went to school with 1,400 kids and I was the only deaf person.
“I sat on computers at school searching for England deaf football but there was very little online. I had nothing to inspire me and ultimately, I was lucky it found me.
“I remember seeing England C [a non-League football representative team] play when I was at Fleetwood and thinking that would be the nearest opportunity I’d get to representing England, so going to the European Championships and wearing the [England Deaf] shirt for the first time in 2019 was an amazing moment.
“I remember seeing my mum, my dad and my nan, who was very dear to me, in the crowd. That was her last ever holiday so for her to watch me in my first tournament made me very proud.
“I’m getting to the age now where I’m thinking of having kids and it’s something I’ll be able to say – your dad played for England. That’s the pull of it. This is keeping me in football.”
Now 28, King is relishing every opportunity to be part of the England Deaf squad, who enjoy regular training camps at St George’s Park and Lilleshall as they build towards next year’s World Championships in South Korea.
“As senior players, we’re making sure the lads stay grounded, take advantage of what’s being offered to them and enjoy it,” said King.
“It’s probably the closest thing we’ll get to professional football and it may even open the door for a few people to be snapped up.
“South Korea is everyone’s aim and on a personal level, I want to push the boat out further and get another couple of tournaments in me.”