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Published 03 June 2024 6 min read
England Para Teams

Inside England's world-leading Para football setup

Written by:

Adam Drury

We speak to administrators, players and staff to get a flavour of the system that has produced so much success for the Para Lions

A hugely exciting few months for England's Para teams awaits, with two major tournaments on the horizon.

The Men's Deaf side secured fifth place at the European Championships in Turkiye recently, with Cerebral Palsy and Partially Sighted European Championships to follow later in 2024.

Our Para teams have enjoyed increasing success in recent years, achieving multiple podium finishes. A high-performance structure has been put in place to support England Para teams across all aspects through a holistic approach, allowing coaches, physios, players and other staff to share ideas, work together and move towards a common goal of success for all teams.

Cath Gilby, Head of Para Performance and James Watkins, Senior Technical Performance Manager, have driven the changes.

Gilby said: "The England Para Football programme is moving from strength to strength. It feels like we are really living the ‘One Para Football’ concept, with support between teams, players and staff at their most impactful . Since starting the role as the Head of Para Performance for The FA, I have been focused on three key areas which I believe has driven the culture into a new and positive place: people, performance and brilliant basics. 

"This programme isn’t just about winning anymore. England Para Football is about inspiring others through our performances, developing people to be the very best they can be and to drive societal change using football."

James Watkins and Cath Gilby have driven forward significant changes at St George's Park
James Watkins and Cath Gilby have driven forward significant changes at St George's Park

Watkins added: "Behind the changes in the Para Programme sits the crucial performance preparation model. Para Squads meet every two weeks with a focus on how individual players and teams prepare tactically to take on world’s best. Mainstream players from partner organisations act as training partners for most of the squads within the camp model and to replicate the pace and intensity of play experienced at the top level. The programme also includes regular games against mainstream teams where Para technical staff prepare them to replicate the playing style of forthcoming opponents."

We caught up with Partially Sighted Men's captain John McDougall, Blind Men Head Coach Adam Bendall and Blind Men Lead Physio Mat Jones to discuss what the programme looks like for those involved.

On what the improvements made since 2020 look like…

John McDougall: In the last few years there has been a real shift. The treatment of every squad is superb. We're part of a Para programme where we're close with players in other squads, we know when all the other tournaments are on and we're in it together. Everyone's getting good opportunities in terms of games and the number of meet-ups.

Adam Bendall: It's totally aligned and there is a clear direction of travel, which has been brought in by Cath and James. The pathway is there.

Mat Jones: The management have made big changes to the programme and the level of investment has been fantastic. All impairment groups over the years have stood alone without any great deal of interaction with other squads. The B1 (completely blind) group doesn't have the advantage of a large pool of players so Incorporating players from other impairment groups has made a real difference to the level of competition in our training sessions.

John McDougall and teammate Adam Lione in training together
John McDougall and teammate Adam Lione in training together

On improved development of players and staff…

JM: We're being rewarded financially and looked after, which is great. I don't have to think about paying for my gym membership, paying for my nutrition. If I need a physio or massage then I can go and get it. All those extra things that allow you to be a better athlete.

AB: All the Para Head Coaches meet once every two months. Guest speakers come in and we work with mentors. The nice thing is that everyone's feeding off each other and their ideas. You're learning off your peers, sharing resources, we watch each other coach. One thing I'm really conscious of in the Blind game is that communication on the pitch is massive – and I'm trying to make sure that is the same off the pitch. So every three months a player has an IDP (Individual Development Plan) given to them with a clear direction of travel for their progress. That gets fed into their home area coach who sits down with me and the player and they are given session ideas to think about.

MJ: Blind football is played at high speed and intensity so we are continually assessing risk.  My role has been to identify protective equipment that we see as being essential, taking into consideration the need for the player to feel confident and comfortable. Every player wears protective head guards. Mouth guards need to be custom-made. We work alongside Cavendish Imaging who use 3D imaging to scan our players' faces. The computerised images are used to manufacture bespoke 3D printed nylon masks, ensuring comfort and protection. The FA are world leaders when it comes to the health and safety of B1 footballers. 

Mat Jones at work during the Para Football Training Camp in Tenerife in January
Mat Jones at work during the Para Football Training Camp in Tenerife in January

On looking after players off the pitch…

JM: There is a player rep scheme, which I'm involved with, that liaises between players and senior management. But people are approachable and that's right from the top with Cath and James. All the players have dual careers and we've had a couple of instances where the lads' skillsets would allow them to work in the FA in other departments. They've helped to facilitate that. Some of the lads have needed psychological help away from camps and support has always been there. It used to be the case that you were an England player on camp and then you weren't as soon as you left. Now it's the complete opposite.

AB: The players get supported by the TAS scheme, which stands for Talented Athlete Support. That enables them to use the gym and other services. It's quite daunting to be a blind person going into a gym for the first time. And we're trying to support them more in their life outside of football. That could be making them more familiar with getting on a bus to get to St George's Park, mobility training around their local area. If you can create a more independent person off the pitch it's only going to help them on the pitch.

MJ: The players don't have the luxury of returning to professional football clubs for medical treatment so we offer our players the best possible care both on and off camps. More frequent training camps have enabled us more contact time for medical matters. This helps us and the players to manage any condition in the acute phase of any injury or illness.

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On wider interest from football fans in Para football…

JM: Stuff that the FA communicates has helped, like now at St George's Park there will be videos of the teams training, which raises the profile internally. The FA Disability Cup has also been televised on TNT Sport for the last couple of years.

AB: We want to influence governing bodies to make tournaments as accessible as possible. As the FA, we can encourage improved broadcasting quality, making sure there's a score on the screen and commentary. Hopefully more big clubs get involved and start Blind football at the grassroots level is important too.

On how Para teams can continue to progress…

JM: Selfishly, I hope we win something. We've got more contact with coaches than ever, everything is in place. We have to go and challenge the beast that is Ukraine, who are dominant in Partially Sighted football. And then it's just about raising the profile of the game even more. It's an evolving beast and we want to keep improving but we've definitely made fantastic strides.

AB: We're always trying to better ourselves and find new ways of supporting the players, which is something that we weren't always thinking about as well as we could. Looking after them in terms of their own football but also away from the pitch. That helps performances ultimately.

MJ: The Para football programme invests heavily in each of our players. We support all their physical needs, ensuring that they feel fit and healthy, not just for football but for life in general. Our support for each other remains unparalleled and this is the springboard as we progress.

Read more about the Para Lions