If kit launches are often mired in accusations of greed and crimes against fashion, Brighton & Hove Albion’s release of their latest designs elicited a markedly more uplifting response from admiring observers. Shot in soaring surroundings on the lawns of the city’s Royal Pavilion, the promotional photoshoot afforded modelling duties to members of the club’s amputee, deaf, cerebral palsy and powerchair teams, proudly parading the much-anticipated shirts alongside Laura Rafferty, of Albion’s high-flying women’s squad, and Lewis Dunk and Pascal Gross, who shone for the men’s side in the Premier League last season.
Many of the respondents offering praise on social media were newly aware of the teams and players making up the full family of a club with a symbiotic relationship to its community. For others, such as the parents who know how much being involved in outreach football does for their children, the initiative carried priceless value, symbolising a sport capable of unleashing joy without prejudice.
The manager of the England Amputee FA, Owen Coyle Jnr, sees the involvement of Connor Cruise, a rising young star in his development squad and a member of the Albion’s Amputee FC, as a significant step forward for his little-known and thinly-funded corner of the game. “Disability and amputee sport may never be held at the same level as the mainstream game, but for me they should certainly be held in higher esteem than they are,” insists Coyle, whose unswerving enthusiasm holds distinct echoes of his father, the former Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers and Burnley manager.
Coyle led his team to the final of the European Championships in Turkey last year. In front of a Beşiktaş crowd of 42,000, they were only eventually beaten by the hosts, whose players are paid professionals commanding national television coverage and calls for signatures and pictures at airports. Flying back to Manchester and London, England’s players received no such attention. “Nobody knows who you are and what you do – they don’t really care, as harsh as that sounds,” acknowledges Coyle, reflecting on a dearth of resources that has dictated a three-year gap without a home fixture. “We try to go away, where fixtures are put on for us.”
Genuinely representative launch campaigns are not without precedent. Jamie Tregaskiss, who lost his leg to cancer while he was a schoolboy in Manchester City’s academy, has taken part in kit shoots in between travelling with the Premier League champions’ amputees team, and Ray Westbrook, a fellow respected servant of Coyle’s England squad, was part of Portsmouth’s launch in his role as captain of their amputees. Pompey, City and Albion make up the national league of amputee teams alongside Peterborough United, Newcastle United, West Bromwich Albion, Arsenal and Everton.
“Before the Olympics in London, disability sport didn’t have many showcases,” points out Coyle. “We’re not actually supported by the FA, believe it or not.” Training once a month at a college, the squad receives modest support from an insurance broker, but the backing soon disappears on costs, with each player and staff member set a target of raising £1,500 to help.
“I’ve been coach for two-and-a-bit years and the staffing team have done a very good job, without blowing too much smoke up our backsides. I’d be more than happy, if the opportunity came about, to step aside as head coach if it meant these lads didn’t have to go and fundraise in the middle of Tesco in order to represent their country.”
“To wear the three lions kit – as much as I’m Scottish, I want the best opportunities available for these guys. We can put people out there on social media but what we really need is a big organisation within the sporting industry to really launch disability football in general. It’s kind of a political thing and we’re debating how to get it right.”
Part of the FA’s withdrawal of funding, in 2006, was attributed to a lack of players and teams. The move caused the inception of the England Amputee Football Association as a charity, and the game has expanded ever since. “In hindsight, it’s probably been a great move because we’ve done all this good work. But in the past five or six years we’ve really pushed the boat out to do as much as we can to say, ‘whatever’s happened in the past has happened, we’ll come under your banner and let’s move forward together.”
Coyle has an eye on winning the amputee World Cup in Mexico in November. “We’re in a really good place,” he asserts, eager not to make his desire for greater resources sound downbeat. “The main thing – forget their talent, the World Cups and everything else – is socially, just to have somewhere where players can go and meet people who are similar and have had similar experiences. Their lives do change. For those who go on to play for their club and represent England, it gives them a real focus and a chance to play football that they thought they might never have again.”
The months leading up to the World Cup were replete with foreboding warnings for fans to remain intensely discreet, yet the reality – artificial or otherwise – fell far from the hype. By the latter stages of England’s illuminating involvement in a tournament decorated with moments and games of exquisite excitement, supporters were hurriedly plotting the feasibility of last-minute flights to Moscow, eager to soak up the atmosphere as much as to witness the unexpected sight of a national team to believe in.
Fans and journalists were outspoken about the remarkable experience the tournament offered, but it also gave activists and campaigners an opportunity to speak out against oppression and remind colossal audiences of some of the persecution still going on in certain parts of the world. Peter Tatchell, the well-known torchbearer for LGBT groups and former Labour Party parliamentary candidate, was arrested on the opening day for a Red Square protest against an anti-gay law passed in Russia in 2013, as well as the torture of LGBT people in Chechnya.
The authorities were less harsh on Tatchell than they had been in the aftermath of his previous visits, and he was not alone in taking a stand. Sophie Cook, an equality activist, writer and broadcaster who became the first transgender employee in the Premier League as AFC Bournemouth’s club photographer, had precious little time for sleep during her whirlwind trip to Russia. Still recovering from watching England’s loss to Croatia live (“the biggest match we’ve had in my lifetime – for an hour, football was coming home,” she rues), Cook can reflect on her speech at a successful LGBT conference organised to coincide with the tournament, even if it almost didn’t happen.
“There were problems attached to it. Venues kept pulling out as soon as they learned it was to do with LGBT people. It was only FIFA’s involvement that got it over the line.” In Red Square, nervous of the authorities’ reaction, a photo in a trans pride flag made time stand still as she waited for a friend to take the snap. “But it went off alright. I’m used to getting stared at on the streets, but I had no more stares in Moscow than I would in the UK, really.
“My Russian friend was looking for where we could go, how we could get the right angle for the photo and where the security guards were. Obviously, the authorities were playing nicely during the World Cup because the eyes of the world were upon them. My concern is that we don’t forget the people over there now that the World Cup’s over.
Back home, Cook is among those to publicly laud Albion’s approach. “The focus since forever has been purely on the first team. You didn’t used to get recognition even for the development and youth sides – so you definitely didn’t get it for the women’s sides. To see these other sides included as part of a mainstream pre-season kit launch is a great step in the right direction. And it’s not just as part of a tack-on afterwards – sometimes clubs do the real launch and then sneak another launch out.”
This spotlight of inclusivity is, happily, not without precedent – Manchester City and Portsmouth are among those to have unveiled new shirt designs with the help of disabled footballers from their community teams recently, and Cook admires another Sussex set-up, Lewes FC, where the men’s and women’s teams earn equal pay, share training facilities. She used their examples, as well as her own experiences in Moscow to enhance her hope of the increasing amount of equality and inclusion in football.
“It was important for me to go over there, make a stand and show solidarity with my Russian friends who perhaps don’t have the freedoms that we have here in the west. The thing is, while the authorities over there might not be ready for diversity, I think that that the Russian people might be. Football is this universal language that gives people the ability to cut across different strata and cultural backgrounds.”