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Blind Ambition

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Article from Coaching Edge Winter 2014: Keep On Moving

A sudden and life changing visual impairment resulted in one dedicated football fan finding his way into coaching, and making a fine job of it too. Caroline Roberts went to meet him.

When Craig Riach lost his sight aged 19, being unable to play football was the least of his worries. ‘It happened so quickly. I had to pack in my job with a painting and decorating company, and stop driving. Looking back now, it was very strange and very frightening,’ he says.

But it’s football that has provided him with a lifeline. Now, aged 35, the coach from Newcastle is the only visually impaired person in the UK to have gained a Level 2 Coaching Disabled Footballers qualification. And it has enabled him to find paid work for the first time in years. ‘It has given me a focus in life again, and is getting me out and giving me opportunities.’

The sudden deterioration in Craig’s sight was due to Leber’s optic neuropathy, a hereditary condition that causes degeneration of the retina. It has left him with some peripheral vision, but when he looks straight ahead all he can see is a thick fog, he explains.

His impairment meant it was difficult to find employment. ‘I had a couple of little jobs but it’s so hard to get an opportunity. People can’t discriminate, but they just find a different way of refusing you.’

The upside was that he was able to spend time looking after his two young children. Nevertheless, he didn’t want to be a stay-at-home dad indefinitely.

Two years ago, he became involved with a football training programme run by the charity, Henshaws Society for Blind People, with a grant from Sport England’s Inclusive

Sport funding. Growing up, he had played for his school and later on for his local pub football team. But when he started work and began training as a volunteer with a lifeboat crew, football took a back seat. However, the scheme reignited his passion for the game and Henshaws put him forward to do his coaching qualifications.

He now has his FA Level 1 coaching qualification, which means he can deliver general football sessions as an assistant coach, as well as his qualifications in disability coaching – he spent four days in Belfast completing the Irish FA’s Coaching Disabled Footballers Level 2 award, as this is not currently available in England.

Craig also took on volunteer coaching, leading weekly adult football fitness sessions for Henshaws and assisting with coaching children’s sessions for the Newcastle United Foundation disability section, which is run in partnership with Henshaws.

Blind and visually impaired football is a five-a-side game played on a smaller pitch, with different rules according to the players’ category of visual impairment (see ‘fact file’ at the end of this article). Craig is classified as B2 as he does have some vision. Sometimes games are played in blindfolds to give players with differing levels of impairment an equal chance.

Players with little or no vision use a ball with a rattle inside so that they can follow the sound. They will also listen for the sound of the ball bouncing off boards that surround the pitch, and have non-playing, sighted guides who issue instructions from the sidelines. All this helps them to build up a mental picture of what’s happening on the pitch. It also means that spectators need to keep quiet so as not to disrupt play.

Verbal communication skills are particularly important for both coach and players, says Craig. ‘You have to talk them through things a lot more, describing it as you’re doing it, as they can’t see much of the demonstration. You also have to be able to adapt it to each individual, as everybody’s needs are different.’

Apart from at elite level, the game is less about passing and more about close control, and there’s an emphasis on this in training. A typical dribble drill might involve the coach shouting and clapping and the players following the direction of the sound.

Communication between players is vital when games are in progress. ‘You need to talk to each other. If I’ve got the ball, I have to tell people and they can tell from my voice where I am. It gets quite noisy.’

With the adults at Henshaws, one of the main things he focuses on is general fitness. The participants range in age from 20 up to 59, and many haven’t played football, or taken much exercise at all, since they developed their eye condition.

A major challenge for visually impaired football is the lack of opportunities for competition, although the children’s team he works with has done well to take part in the National Visually Impaired Championships in London three years in a row. However, teams to play against in the North East are few and far between and competition involves lots of travel. At the end of November, the Henshaws adult team went to Belfast for a mini tournament involving a team from the Irish Republic, two teams from Belfast, one of which is top of the visually impaired British League, and a team from Manchester. ‘It went very well. All the games were quite close and we had two draws, including one with the British champions. That was a massive achievement for us. We’ll get them next time.

‘We’re a bit out of the way in the north and we don’t get as much help,’ says Craig. ‘I’d like to try to get visually impaired football bigger in the area and get more teams more involved, but more funding is needed, particularly with travel costs. Only one member of the current squad is working, so money is a big issue.’

Awareness of the sport is growing, and it does seem there are moves to create more opportunities for the future. In October, a new bespoke training facility for blind football was opened at The Football Association’s (FA) national football centre at St George’s Park, Staffordshire. The FA also announced funding of £1m for the sport over the next two years to support players and coaches in the run up to The Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. However, it remains to be seen how much of this will filter down to grass-roots level.

Following his period of volunteering, Craig has now been appointed to a part-time paid position with Henshaws. As well as leading the football-themed sessions, the 21-hours-a-week role involves helping others with sight loss to access activities such as archery, step classes, boxercise and swimming. The new job means he has put his plans to take a degree in sports fitness and coaching on hold for a year while he settles in.

His contribution has led to him being nominated in the annual Pride of Henshaws awards, in which he won the ‘No Fear Award’ for his personal journey and his support of visually impaired football. The charity’s community services development officer, Philippa Taylor, says: ‘For the nomination, we had to sum him up in three words and we chose ‘steadfast’, ‘reliable’ and ‘supportive’, I’m just so incredibly proud of what he’s achieved and how far he’s come in the past two years.’

There’s no doubt that Craig now sees a future for himself in disability sport. ‘It’s so rewarding. One kid, who’s 15 now, has been coming since the start of the training project. He’s now a massive football fan and plays out in the street with his brothers. It gives visually impaired kids a way to join in with others. Before, he lacked confidence and now he’s even tried mainstream football. His whole lifestyle and confidence has improved massively through the project. He also takes part in the B1 blindfold games and helps the younger ones, so he’s giving back a bit of what the project has given to him.’

Fact File

Blind football, also known as futsal, is an adapted form of the game for players with visual impairments. It is governed by the International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA), which organises regional and world championships. It is one of the most popular sports for those with a visual impairment around the world.

The field of play is smaller and is surrounded by boards. Teams contain five players, including the goalkeeper, who is sighted. This is for safety reasons as there were too many collisions when partially sighted keepers were used in the past. Teams can also use one sighted guide, who helps direct players from the touchline. Each half lasts 25 minutes, with a 10-minute break at half time.

There are three player classifications. B1 players are completely blind or have almost no vision, while B2 and B3 players are partially sighted.

Competition is divided into two categories: one for players classified as B1, and a mixed B2 and B3 category. In the mixed category, there must be at least B2 players on the pitch at all times.

The sport was introduced into the Paralympic Games in 2004. At The London 2012 Paralympic Games, the gold medal was won by Brazil, with England coming seventh.

Next Steps

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To find a workshop near you visit the Workshop Finder.

Inspired by Craig’s story? Got any tips to help your fellow coaches be more inclusive in their coaching? Share your views by leaving a comment below.

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