Football For All: Inclusive Sport in Ireland

 

Young people with additional needs have struggled during lockdown; along with the disruptions to school, their opportunity to get out and socialise has been extremely limited. However, even before the COVID19 pandemic, lack of opportunities to make friends and pursue their interests is a long-standing issue in our community. Michael Kennedy, who previously served as PRO for Knocklyon United for over 15 years, has a project which will help young people with various additional needs get out, get active and get socialising.

It all started with what seemed like a one-off event. “Back in 2003 we linked up with St Enda’s Ballyboden to host a mixed-mini world cup with over 120 kids from Down Syndrome Ireland.” Mick explains “We had Brazil, Argentina, you name it! There were medals and cups and everything. I always wanted to do it again and I noticed other sports weren’t trying it out. After a number of years as Vice-Chairman to the Dublin District School league, Mick returned to Knocklyon where his  grandchildren play and agreed to organise another mini world cup tournament in 2019. “We mixed up the nine clubs and had kids from the autism and down syndrome community. Then Tallaght Town started doing it and there were plans to do it with FAI before restrictions.”

Victorious players at the FFA Mixed-Mini World Cup

 

Mick eventually set up Football For All in Knocklyon with about 32 children between 5 and 16. This has evolved into a league that will hopefully be up and running in 2021. Mick noted the challenge in dividing up resources evenly “Over twenty teams have shown interest in the league. Some clubs have loads of kids but no coaches where it’s the reverse with others so there’s a need to balance it out.”

Inclusivity is core to the philosophy of Football For All. Mick recalls the first Mixed-Mini World Cup “I we asked to bring one club to bring another group from the mainstream team. So now when someone joins for example, Knocklyon, they’re not just a member of Football For All, they’re in the club…in certain games we’ll have a team where the Football For All child is the only one who can score, so the mainstream player needs to pass the ball to them for the game to work.”

The club is divided up based on the needs and ability of each player, Mick explains. “With a lot of the kids it just starts with them walking with their mum, dad or sibling and we’ll give them a ball just to tip it around a little.” Mick goes on to explain there’s two different pitches to help with this. “One would have twenty kids that are pretty quick on the ball, and maybe others who’ll be decent at dribbling. The other pitch will have younger players who are moving a bit slower or people who might not be as comfortable with a ball; they might have a sibling walking with them. So no matter your age or level, there’s football for everyone.”

Niall Quinn during his Football For All visit

Multiple parents have told Mick they’ve noticed a huge change in their children’s confidence. “Most of them start just walking around with the ball in their hands…now the mums and dads are telling us they’ll be walking in the park and their child will see a football and run out to kick it! They’d never have done that before and it shows a huge boost in confidence.”

The club has also helped many children to socialize and make friends. “Some of them are from the same school but most of them are making friends through the sport. Like any other team most of them are more likely to pass the ball to a team-mate they’re friends with and they get to know each other better that way. When we’re doing the mini-world cup we get the kids to carry flags for each country before the game and they love it. We also get them interacting afterwards: at the end of the tournament we had a barbecue and presented medals.”

Play-off with members of the Irish Amputee Football Association

It seems the generous and inclusive spirit of Football For All charms whoever comes to visit it. Katherine Zappone presented at one of the mixed Mini-World Cups. Niall Quinn presented signed footballs to each player in Tallaght town. The children were also visited by players Irish Amputee Football Association. For Mick, the only goal is to make more people aware of Football For All. “My target is to get forty clubs with Football For All. We got the go ahead to go back training back in July…the children couldn’t wait to get out and see their friends and play…lots of kids in the last two months were amazed, they never knew this was there!”

Their website is available here.

Michael Kennedy can be contacted 086-2669311 or via email at michael@sfkennedylowe.com

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