Blind football can really open your eyes
IN a football dressing room last Saturday afternoon, a referee is introduced to the players by their coach as having "at least 20 years experience". "20 years?" queries a player on his first day with the team, who also happens to be blind. "Jesus, you don't look it."
That quip came before the training match and soon after news had filtered through that Manchester United had lost to Newcastle, which, as always with a United defeat, split the dressing room between grins and grimaces.
"Maybe we should try and give back Fellaini plus £10m for Baines."
"Phil Neville should have gone to work for Sky."
"Nani's been stealing a living for years and they gave him a five-year contract."
The players might not have seen a moment of David Moyes' reign, but it doesn't stop them having valid, funny or intriguing opinions. Again, just like every other dressing room.
This is Blind Football Ireland, part of the FAI's 'Football For All' programme, where, as they do every three weeks at Ballymun United's sports complex, a group of players, coaches and volunteers meet to improve their skills. Leaving the dressing-room with one hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them, the players form a train towards the pitch, which is 40 metres long, 20 metres wide and has wooden boards along the sidelines which are used by players to determine their on-pitch position.
"It's competitive," explains Kevin Kelly from Donegal, who lost his sight due to retinal detachment at the age of 13. Now aged 26, he explains the physical and mental benefits of being part of a dressing room and re-discovering a passion.
"After I lost my sight, I'd still kick a ball around on my own, but it's not the same as playing proper football. Not having football or competitive sport in my life left a void which this has given back and I've also lost weight and feel fitter.
"Parents might think that if their child loses their sight, they can't play sport, but everyone here enjoys playing and, when they do, they want to win. The parents might come along, enjoy it, then volunteer and that helps it grow. There's a huge feeling of inclusion when you're playing," adds Donnacha McCarthy a 23-year-old from west Cork who lost his sight when he was 11. "It's brilliant to have the chance to play again and, hopefully, we can get more people involved in the future."
Both players are heavily involved in trying to develop the game here.
The next step in progressing the game comes next weekend when seven players and eight coaches go to The Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford to play an England development squad and everyone involved will be on a learning experience.
"They've been doing this in England for quite a while," explains David Rake, who is one of two FAI coaches putting the players through their paces alongside Nick Harrison. "This game won't be about winning, but more what we can learn from it and bring back here to develop the game.
"One day we'd hope to have a national squad, a development squad and also train young players in the game.
The players have improved enormously in the short time we've had them and they make so many decisions on the pitch in the course of a game that it gives them confidence in their day-to-day lives too."
Like all sports, there's not enough money to go around, which is why Heatons/ Sportsworld's three-year partnership with the FAI's Football for All initiative is so welcome, but, despite this, the commitment of the players is unquestionable – from the warm-ups where they run with intensity towards a coach's voice to the tackling in the training game itself.
These players are in the B1 Category of the sport, meaning in competitive matches it is compulsory to wear eye patches over both eyes and a blindfold to create a level playing field with players who may have slightly varying levels of visual impairment.
The footballs are heavier than standard and rattle when moved so that the players can follow the sound as the ball moves towards them before dribbling with it between their feet "like a hillbilly dance" as one player puts it. The pitch is divided in three parts and when the ball is in play in the defensive third, it is only the goalkeeper, who is fully sighted, that is allowed to speak. When it reaches the middle third, the coaches can speak and, in the attacking third, the coaches behind the goal can let the players know where they are or encourage them to shoot.
The ball is also not allowed to be stationary, and therefore inaudible, for more than four seconds while personal fouls and team fouls build up like they do in basketball. Players must also shout the word "Voy" if they feel they are close enough to the ball to make a tackle on an opponent.
"The game is refereed just the same," explains Gerry Behan, the aforementioned man of 20 years experience. "You don't let players away with anything because if something is a foul, it's a foul. That's the way it should be and that's the way the players want it."
One goal in the training game is scored by Brian Devanney, who was part of the Sixmilebridge hurling squad that won a county Feile in 2004 before losing his sight a few years later. He has travelled from Clare with a friend and his brother Deash, who had his leg amputated several years ago, but is now part of the Irish Amputee Squad, also part of the Football For All sector.
"Ah sure if you go around a hospital long enough you'll find someone worse off than you," says Deash on the sideline, while marvelling at the ability of his brother and others to tackle, control and kick a ball they can't see.
For everyone watching, it's an eye-opening experience.