Harry Baker: 'Playing for England has been a huge factor in me having confidence in myself'
England Cerebral Palsy team international Harry Baker discusses the importance of finding disability football and the crucial role that coaches at all grassroots clubs can play
My name is Harry Baker and I play for the England Cerebral Palsy team. I am 25, from Banbury, and play at either centre back or left wing.
In truth, my start to football was not a good one. Because of my disability and maybe the lack of understanding of disability, I was put in the year group below.
I understand now that they were maybe trying to protect me and stop me from getting hurt so that it didn’t result in me not enjoying my football. The problem was because I was the year above, I wasn’t allowed to play in the games. So I was then going back to school on a Monday and people were talking about the goals they had scored and the things they had done in their game at the weekend and then they would ask me and it was like ‘well I didn’t play because I wasn’t allowed’.
It was really tough because I felt like I was missing out and it was creating a barrier for me with my friends. I live in a village and everyone else was involved so I felt like I was missing out.
I ended up moving clubs and I had two great coaches – Dean Thompson and Mick O’Driscoll, who sadly passed away – and they gave me a chance.
I trained with the right age group but I went to every game for two years without really getting on, I think because they could tell the lads in training not to go too hard or push me over but when you are playing against the opposition, they want to win so they won’t be that kind.
So it was a case of taking that risk. One day we had a game where we only had nine players for an eight-a-side game and I was on the bench. Someone got injured and I ended up coming on and scoring. From then on I played every game after that because they realised I could cope with the intensity.
I was about eight or nine at that point but I was football mad from a very young age. I was obsessed and it was always my dream to become a Premier League footballer. I quickly realised that was very unlikely to come to fruition with my disability but I would say I have done well considering!
My cerebral palsy means I am left-sided hemiplegic. I am more affected in my leg than my hand which is not ideal when you want to play football!
I am not too badly affected day-to-day, and I just walk with a limp. When I get tired I am more likely to trip over or drag my feet along the floor. My Mum is always saying to me: ‘Heel up!’
Playing football, I don’t really notice my cerebral palsy because I have had it my whole life and I don’t know anything different. I am not as good on my left-side compared to their right but then neither are most players when comparing their weak foot to their strong side!
I had been playing mainstream football growing up and then around the age of 12 I got put forward for a Northamptonshire School Partnership Award for doing well in P.E. Unfortunately, I didn’t win the award but it did result in me getting scouted by the Northampton Pan-Disability team.
But because I had tried so hard my whole life to not be labelled disabled, I told my Mum straightaway ‘I’m not playing for them’.
I knew nothing about the chance to play for England or anything like that. I had such a negative view of being a disabled person just because I wasn’t confident in who I was as a person and hadn’t found what I was meant to do and who I was.
So I didn’t want to go but mums are always right aren’t they? My Mum just said: ‘no, you are going’ and I went.
Because it was pan-disability, it was not only cerebral palsy players but deaf, partially-sighted and learning difficulties as well. With the other disabilities, there are not the same physical impairments from a footballing point of view so I was getting bopped and I felt like the standard was so good. So it became a challenge to me and I wanted to become the best footballer there.
I ended up really enjoying it and that is when I found out about the pathway for England and my goal was then becoming an England international.
So I started playing pan-disability football when I was 12, so year eight, and by 15 I had been called up to the England Under-21 development team.
One of the lads got injured so I got called up, had a really good camp, got called up again, and then we had the Home Nations when I had the opportunity to represent the Under-21s against Scotland and Northern Ireland!
It was then later that year when I got called up for the senior England team just after I had turned 16. I came to a camp when Lyndon Lynch was the manager and Jeff Davis was the head of para football. He said: ‘Don’t worry, you’re not going to get in the squad for the Intercontinentals so just go out there and have fun’.
It took all that pressure off me and I felt like I had nothing to prove. I ended up having one of the best camps I have ever had.
My Mum then got a call – because I was too young at that point for her not to be involved for safeguarding reasons – and Ryan, who is one of our goalkeepers and is a similar age to me, rang me up and asked if I had been picked for the squad, and I was like ‘no but I don’t think I am getting picked any way’. Then about four hours later, my Mum walks in the door and says, ‘are you excited?’ I was like ‘what for?’ And she went ‘because you have been picked for the Intercontinentals’.
I ran around my house going mad. At 16, I was heading to my first major competition with England!
Playing for England, gave me a new level of confidence. I was almost pretending when it came to who I was growing up. I was playing mainstream football and trying to hide my disability while still trying to be the best I could.
Then I realised when I got involved with England and all my mates at school were celebrating me playing for England, it gave me the feeling that my disability is going to be something I am always going to have, and I have to learn to accept it and use this platform to inspire others to be happy within themselves and be the best version of themselves.
Playing for England has helped me to just be me. A lot of people who have only known me over recent times will say ‘you’ve always been confident’ and that hasn’t always been the case. Playing for England has been a huge factor in me having that confidence in myself.
It is why things like the FA’s Football Your Way plan are vital. They help the sport grow and for us at the elite end of disability football, we need to inspire as many people as possible to get involved because you don’t know what kinds of talented people are missing out.
In this England squad, we have players like Liam Irons and James Blackwell who have had CP all of their lives but have only been involved with disability football for five or so years because they just didn’t know about the pathway. It is a huge sadness because they haven’t been able to play CP football for longer.
For me, education is vital at all levels. A lot of coaches will say their clubs are inclusive, but they mean they have a ramp into their clubhouse. But how inclusive are your coaching sessions?
A lot of coaches are volunteers so the more chances we give them to learn how to approach players with disabilities the better because you never know who is going to walk into your football club.
If you learn and understand disability football and the player pathway, then you can potentially help that person be happier and maybe one day go on to play for their national team.
Education and raising awareness are huge when it comes to introducing even more players to disability football and hopefully England one day winning medals at the major tournaments.
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