Late morning at St George’s Park and the weather is perishing. Freezing rain is driving across the landscaped parkland that is home to England’s national football teams. At the back of the complex, apparently oblivious to the conditions, are the men’s blind team, thudding each other into the hoardings.
“If you’re not talking, you’re not doing the right thing!” hollers the head coach, Jonathan Pugh, known by everyone as Pughie, as he watches his players go through their drills. This is the first day of a crucial training camp, with a number of new young talents to be bedded in and two fixtures against Germany squeezed in for good measure, but it also comes at an inflection point for the sport.
If you have experienced blind football, perhaps the five-a-side competition that is part of the Paralympics, you will know it is mesmerising. At the top level, it is characterised by sinuous dribbling and rasping finishes. It is a game with a rhythm of its own. But to watch it, as a sighted person, gives only a partial sense of its complexity and challenges. It is a sport, its advocates insist, which offers transformative effects for those who play.
Here’s one way in which blind football operates on a different level from other versions of the game. Perhaps obviously, given that every player must cover their eyes to ensure equality between people with differing impairments, it has a distinct aural dimension. Coaching instructions can be issued from three sections of the pitch: from the goalkeeper (the one sighted position), a coach at the halfway line and another behind the opposition goal. Each player must not only talk with their teammates but signal their intention to challenge for the ball. They must shout the Spanish word “voy” as they approach an opponent in possession or any tackle is illegal. Finally there is the ball, a hard handball-style object filled with ball bearings whose rattle players must tune into. On this wintry morning, that is particularly challenging: the rain has seeped into the lining and deadened the noise.
“In blind football you’ve got to stay switched on all the time,” says Owen Bainbridge, the England captain and, at 31, one of the side’s most experienced players. “So as well as being quite physically tiring, it’s also mentally draining as well. Awareness and communication are massive. You need to have spatial awareness, orientation skills, echo location too. And we haven’t even mentioned the football skills.”
Bainbridge gets up from the table, recovering from the chill, and shows off his ability to locate by echo, identifying correctly all the barriers around him, to the extent of picking out the corners on the window framing. Turning blind at the age of seven, Bainbridge never understood the complexities of football from a visual perspective. Others, whose vision changed later in life, have that appreciation but not the same internal awareness. Bainbridge says all share their different skills but each of their lives has benefited from taking up the sport. “It has massively improved my life skills,” he says. “Everything I use on the football pitch I use if I’m walking down the street.”
Pugh, a former semi-pro player, began his career in blind football as a goalkeeper. Rocketing shots and toe-pokes are common, he explains, speed being of the essence in an attempt to catch a keeper off guard. “There are some players in the world who are unbelievably accurate in their shooting,” he says. “It’s really hard to even fathom how they know what they’re doing, but they just do.”
After playing for England under the tutelage of Tony Larkin, the godfather of blind football in England, Pugh has been head coach since 2014. His involvement extends from grassroots to elite level. He finds himself deeply involved in a long-awaited expansion of the game.
This autumn the Football Association announced its first strategy for the development of disability football. This meant an increase in funding and an emphasis on increasing participation.
But in blind football the grassroots essentially remains to be built. There are only three teams. It includes about 50 players and “we’re talking all ages, sizes and genders”, Pugh says.
One of the commitments in the FA’s Football Your Way strategy is to create a women’s international team. There is also, at grassroots level, FA-funded expansion into 19 new sites of what is called B1, a small-sided controlled version of blind football that seeks to introduce more visually impaired people to the game.
B1, Pugh says, takes place in a “controlled environment” that means it can be safe. “Quite often people are turned off blind football because family, friends, guardians are worried it’s an aggressive game,” he says. “Sometimes [people choose] the safer sports because you get the same social interaction and some life skills along the way. But they’re not the same as those you get when you play football. I find that our players are not only stupidly independent but their life skills are such that you wouldn’t notice their disability. Which I think is amazing.”
The UN-endorsed International Day of People with Disabilities falls on Friday. Its goals are to raise awareness but also encourage optimism and Pugh has that in abundance. He says a new approach to the grassroots will help blind football grow exponentially, with hundreds of people set to come into the game. “It’s going to change everything,” he says. “I don’t walk around hoping that people are going to be blind but sadly people will lose their sight either congenitally or throughout their life and we want to give them a chance, at any age. So I’m excited about the future.”
Bainbridge went on to captain England to two 0-0 draws against Germany last weekend. He too is excited about the growth in the sport, allowing blind people to develop skills and expose themselves to risk on their own terms. “Going into blind football is mainstream football for us and now you’ve got kids who are playing it from seven years old. Can you imagine what kind of opportunities that is giving them?”