The sun shines bright on Cumann Spóirt an Phobail on the Ballymurphy Road

Cumann Spóirt an Phobail training at Corpus Christi Youth Centre in west Belfast Picture Mal McCann
Cumann Spóirt an Phobail training at Corpus Christi Youth Centre in west Belfast Picture Mal McCann Cumann Spóirt an Phobail training at Corpus Christi Youth Centre in west Belfast Picture Mal McCann

A GORGEOUS evening sun stubbornly holds its ground above the Black Mountain casting its unyielding rays on the 4G pitch at the back of Corpus Christi Youth Centre just off Ballymurphy Road in west Belfast.

The players of Cumann Spóirt an Phobail (CSP) Football for all Disability have just been put through their paces by coaches Kevin McVeagh and Mickey Corr and are now enjoying an end of session game.

CSP coach Kevin McVeagh has extended a kindly invitation to me to take part in the game, the pace of which is surprisingly fast.

JJ is throwing shapes down the right wing, jinking one way, then the other.

Nathan is pulling the strings and Sean Paul is so busy you’d swear there are two of him on the pitch.

And then there’s Gary, the team’s bustling centre forward, who carries the power of a cannon ball in his right foot that would test the foundations of the new Corrigan Park stand which backs onto the pitch.

Every time he gets a sight of goal, he lets fly. Boom…

At the start of their weekly training session, the players are broken into two groups: Ability One and Two.

At one end of the pitch Kevin shouts out instructions and praise in equal measure.

Each training drill works a treat.

To a man, the players listen and execute each drill with unerring control of the ball.

Welcome to Cumann Spóirt an Phobail on the Ballymurphy Road, where there is no hierarchy, no second glances, and where everyone is treated equally.

I’m greeted by wide smiles, fist bumps, warm words and back slaps. This group of players, which ranges from aged 14 to 51, is bursting with fantastic camaraderie.

I feel right at home among the blood-red jerseys of CSP – a brand new kit that was kindly donated by Clonard Credit Union.

Disabilities range from physical to learning difficulties to mental illness.

CSP, as they are known, are one of two clubs in west Belfast who are ‘inclusive of all abilities’ – the other being St James’ Swifts.

Joanne McCausland has been involved with the club’s disability team from its inception four years ago along with the likes of Joe McDonnell and Ciaran Reid.

Standing at the edge of the pitch watching tonight’s hour-long training session, Joanne says: “There was a junior section which needed one-to-one and I saw on Facebook that it was constantly being cancelled because they couldn’t get the volunteers. So I messaged the club and asked them what was required. I thought I was taking the younger team but I ended up getting involved in the senior team.”

The disability team evolved because a number of the players were following CSP’s two senior teams who compete in the Belfast & District League.

“They were helping out – filling up the water bottles, picking up the balls, they were just giving them wee jobs to keep them involved and interested. And that’s actually how the team started. We decided to start a football team for people with disability…"

Joanne has now signed up for what feels like a life sentence with CSP, one she will happily serve.

“There is just that sense of… they appreciate everything that you do for them,” she says. “By just me standing here and turning up.

“They’ll say: ‘Thank you, Joanne. See you next week.’

“And they have a group chat that will go on all night… ‘That was a brilliant session,’ ‘That was class’, ‘Well done everybody’.”

Joanne points to the far corner of the pitch and says: “There’s Mick Reid. Mick was 14 when he started. He didn’t know anything about football whatsoever.

“He was afraid on the pitch; he was frightened to go in for a tackle. But, week by week, I’ve just seen him progress so much. He’s coming out of his shell now, he’s more talkative.

“His social skills have improved, whereas he was normally on his own. It’s a very inclusive group. If there’s a new player that turns up tonight they would make them feel as welcome, like they’ve been a part of the team for as long as they’ve been part of the team.

“For some of them it’s the only social outlet they have in the week.”

A well-known coaching figure in soccer and GAA circles in north and west Belfast, Kevin McVeagh originally got involved with CSP as goalkeeping coach three years ago.

“It was a bit of a challenge but when I got used to it, it was good fun,” he says.

“The initial challenge for me was trying to adapt to players’ different abilities – some things they can do and some things they can’t do, so you have to keep an eye on that when you’re delivering a coaching session.”

Having coached countless teams at junior and intermediate level, his latest posting at CSP is by far the most rewarding.

“This tops the lot because nobody answers you back,” he laughs. “All these lads want to do is play football and train.

“The satisfaction I get from coaching the team would be the unbelievable appreciation from the players for treating them as equals and recognising them for their ability and not their disability to play the sport that they love and enjoy.”

Alan Crooks is the club’s go-to man.

Alan has worked as Development Manager for Disability and Inclusion at the IFA for the last 17 years. In conjunction with the Community Foundation NI, Crooks’ department provides clubs with financial, educational and practical support to run a disability section.

Crooks’ and indeed the IFA’s mantra is providing “competitive opportunity” for all by having four ability bands for the various soccer leagues around the north.

“When I first started in 2003 there were only Special Olympics football clubs who catered for learning disability, so there was a big gap in provision for people with physical disability and sensory impairment,” Crooks explains.

“With the support of the lottery we set up six county-based disability football clubs that catered for learning and or physical disability.

“But after a period of time we found it was quite hard to deliver from a central position in Belfast, so the Inclusive Club project was to empower local clubs to provide the opportunities and we are more of a supporting mechanism now. There are representative opportunities for the more talented players and it seems to be working a lot better.”

He adds: “It is up to us to provide games for whatever ability level people have and to play against those of similar ability. I initially met one of the club’s leading members Joe McDonnell who is a cracking fella and from then CSP have really grasped every opportunity.

“A lot of players with CSP would have learning difficulties, some would have physical disability, things like cerebral palsy. The players are all ‘on their feet’ but we have clubs who have wheelchair users. We have separate opportunities for visually impaired, we have a defeat football club.”

Before Covid struck, on any given Saturday there would be anything up to 200 players (24 clubs) congregating at the Valley Leisure Centre for disability league football. While it hasn’t yet resumed, it is hoped that it soon will.

Some of CSP players really struggled during lockdown. That sense of isolation and not being able to see or train with their team-mates was a very testing time.

“We had Zoom calls and group chats but it’s not the same,” says Kevin. “We sent them things about keeping fit and healthy eating. Some of them maybe did it and others didn’t."

For Kevin, northern society is dealing with two pandemics – suicide and Covid19.

Without trying to cheapen the deadly nature of Covid19, he adds: “There are more suicides on a weekly basis than there are of people dying of Covid right now. We need to get people out in the open. The Covid lockdown and restrictions had a big impact on the players' health and wellbeing. This had to be taken into account on our return to training.”

CSP is grateful to the Belfast City Council, Clonard Credit Union and the practical support from the IFA - but the heartbeat of the club is the volunteering spirit of its coaching staff.

“The first session was at Falls Park because our facility was closed; we were still trying to get them to socially distance,” Joanne says. “But they were so ecstatic about getting back. They wanted to train on and Kevin put on an extra half hour.”

The game ends all square and has to be settled by a penalty shoot-out. But there are beaming smiles among both sets of players.

“There are some characters in the team,” smiles Kevin. “No matter how many times you tell them, Mick Faloon takes his jersey home. He just puts his tracksuit on and away he goes...

“One of our players can’t read or write so all his messages must be spoken over the group chat. I forget to do that all the time. All the stuff you take for granted sometimes. But you see the enthusiasm they have for the game – it would do your heart good.”

The CSP players happily pose for Irish News photographer, Mal McCann for some team shots before they all spill out onto Ballymurphy Road and make their own way home.

All just regular Joes playing football.

“At CSP, those guys are wearing the same kit as their juniors, the girls team, the senior men’s team,” says the IFA's Alan Crooks. “They are members of a club, there is sense of a belonging. I think that’s really important. We are not separating disability. It’s a case of: ‘This is your club – you are important as the men’s senior team.’”