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Published 15 February 2023 4 min read
Goal Click

‘There was no doubt that football would still be my love and play a huge part in my life.’

Written by:

Shelbee Clarke

As part of England Football’s photography series collaboration with Goal Click, Shelbee Clarke tells us how she is still thriving in the beautiful game despite having her leg amputated after treatment for bone cancer. Our series tells the inside story of disability football in England from the perspective of those involved.

England Football x Goal Click

My name is Shelbee Clarke, I was born and raised in Bedford. 

My work background has always been teaching but I've recently taken on a new role as the head coach of SSG Celestials in Bedfordshire, which is the first ever SEND Football Academy. This gives access to football for any child aged 6-16 with SEND (‘special education needs and disabilities’).

I've been involved with football my whole life. Growing up with four older brothers meant from the moment I could walk I was playing football. 

In the early 2000s there weren't many teams for girls, so for the first couple of years I had to play with a boys’ team. I joined my first all-girls team when I was eight years old. We didn't have many teams in our league but as each year passed more girls were interested in playing football.

I captained my school team throughout my time at school. While in the Royal Marine Cadets, we won the national trophy three years running. In my last year of school, I was invited to a trial to play football in the USA and was offered a full scholarship.

However, at 18 my football life had to take a pause due to a bone cancer diagnosis, which meant I needed to have a year of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Once I had beaten cancer for the first time, I attended Bedfordshire University and studied to become a secondary school PE teacher. While at university, I played for the first team. 

England Football x Goal Click Shelbee Clarke

Unfortunately, at the beginning of my second year I was re-diagnosed with bone cancer and this time it meant I had to have a major surgery to remove the left side of my pelvis including my sacrum.

Due to complications, my left leg from my knee down was paralysed. After eight surgeries my pelvis surgery finally healed. But during a routine scan my hip popped out and while it was being put back in, it hit the artery causing a blood clot to form. I had to have an emergency amputation above my left knee.

Although I had become an amputee, it was also the start of the rest of my life and there was no doubt that football would still be my love and play a huge part in my life.

I've been coaching now for five years. Four of those years were with a girls’ grassroots team - with them smashing back-to-back promotions. The past year I have been the head coach and football inclusion officer for SSG Celestials, a brand-new football academy for children with any Special Educational Needs.

This is the first academy of its kind to offer football for the full spectrum of superpowers they all have. I've been into a few special schools around Bedford to deliver football sessions with an incredible group of coaches.

We also do weekly community outreach sessions, where we already have a huge number of 38 players in just three months. Seeing their smiles every week playing with a football and having the feeling of complete acceptance is beautiful to watch and an absolute honour to lead.

This project is still in its early days, but the feedback and future plans are only getting bigger and better every day.

England Football x Goal Click Shelbee Clarke

I still play football and at the moment I am the only woman in the country who plays at senior level. I'm due to attend a training weekend in Poland in March to train with other women’s amputee players from around Europe.

While playing for Peterborough, we won the English Championship as well as the FA Disability Cup at St. George’s Park. This season, our team has been transferred and we are now playing for Chelsea Football Club.

We train every two weeks down at Cobham Training Ground and play our league games each month over in Crewe. 

I took photos during a training session with my girls’ grassroots team. We trained twice a week and played matches on the weekend. Being an amputee never stopped me coaching my girls and their hard work and acceptance was amazing even at their young age.

My coaching journey started with my girls’ team and while they were developing, I was too.

They inspired me every week, making me want to be the best coach I could be to best help develop their abilities. A few of the girls had been rejected from other teams, which had knocked their confidence. This was a huge hurdle to overcome to find their place of belonging.

England Football x Goal Click Shelbee Clarke

Going through two lots of cancer, I always had a positive attitude and pushed through everything thrown at me, so I wanted to teach the girls that they could all become anything they work for. 

I wanted to capture that no matter the hurdles thrown at you in life, you can always overcome them. It is not easy, but for something you have a passion for and love, it is worth it.

Football plays a big role in our community with endless teams for both boys and girls. Being able to offer the same opportunities to children with SEND is so important for our community. Every child who loves football can feel accepted and part of a team.

Amputee football has had a huge impact on my physical and mental health. Without it and my team, I would not be able to do what I love with a team that I see as family. Amputee football has become more known in Bedford due to the recognition the sport is receiving and talking to people about my story. 

I think the future is looking bright for amputee football. With support from the FA and other football governing bodies, there are no limits to what could be on offer for anyone with an amputation, who may never have thought they could still play football. With the right promotion and support, our country could lead in amputee sport and offer pathways to people with disabilities.

England Football x Goal Click Shelbee Clarke

I know what it's like to be looking at the same four walls for 18 months and go through something traumatic but playing football and being part of a team and an inspiring community with similar stories makes life a lot more worth living.

Football has always been my release and safe place. No matter what was going on, I always had football that I could count on. Football kept me focused and determined to smash every stereotype there has been around women playing football.

I want to continue to develop myself as a player and a coach. We have some exciting plans with the Celestials and being able to offer football to every child in and around our community. Being able to give back and supply others with what I had growing up is my biggest goal.

Bedford is a big footballing community with more girls and women getting involved in teams every year. Being a player or coach can change your life. There are always ways to develop your skills and give back to our next generation in the community.

I would love to see the next generation not have any restrictions at all to be able to play football. Every single person deserves to do what they love, no matter who they are and how they learn.

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