England’s record goal scorer in blind football, David Clarke, is being inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame. He says that the honour confirms the high esteem in which disability football is held.
“When I was born in 1970 there was no opportunity to play football as a blind person for your club, school, district county or your country. Having worked for 17 years on and off the pitch to get the sport recognised as a paralympic sport and then by the English FA and UK Sport, to have retired and to look back on that is great for me. But to have someone recognise my influence with something as mainstream as the hall of fame, and going in there with Peter Schmeichel and Matt Le Tissier is unbelievable.”
The museum’s hall of fame boasts legends including Sir Alex Ferguson, Alan Ball, Gordon Banks, Cliff Bastin, Jimmy Greaves and Sir Tom Finney. Clarke, who retired after the 2012 Paralympics and who scored 128 goals in 144 international appearances, will be inducted in September with Cliff Jones who played for Tottenham’s double-winning side, Mike Summerbee, one of the ‘Holy Trinity’ in the great 1968-70 Manchester City team, Ray Wilkins and Sheila Parker, the first women’s England captain.
The status of disability football, according to Clarke, is one he could never have dreamt of as a 12 year old at Worcester College for the Blind where he honed his skills playing against older and more powerfully built players who had more sight than him.
“We now know through the number of disabled football courses completed, and the fact that the basic coaching course that the FA runs includes a module on disability football, that coaches are being educated on how to coach disabled footballers. There are pathways available for disabled kids to play football from the age of five for fun or to reach an elite level. It’s testament to the work of many people that we’re in a position that any blind child who wants to play, can.”
But although the opportunities are there, Clarke says that making sure they are exploited is another issue.
“I was very fortunate in that my parents were important in encouraging me to get out there and be a part of sport. It’s probably up to the likes of you and me and the blind community to make sure that people get out there and do it now. Another challenge is how you make people aware of how they can participate. Marketing that is difficult.”
Does the fact that more disabled young people are being educated in mainstream schools rather than special schools make it harder to develop teams and nurture football among blind and disabled pupils?
“It’s difficult to track people down, but it’s not beyond the wit of man to go through the sensory teams in local authorities. Let’s not forget that last year Sainsbury’s got two million kids playing blind football by approaching mainstream schools.”
As well as writing a book and acting as an ambassador for the FA, Clarke coaches a mainstream under-eights team, Harpenden Colts and trains once a week with his old coach. But before his 17 year long football career, he played for 10 years and he is enjoying his retirement.
“I’m considering a number of options to get involved with disability and mainstream sport. But I gave up football to give more time to my family. I don’t miss playing at all. There’s a lot to not miss about training six days a week and holding down a job. I’m still keeping myself fit but it’s nice to do it for fun.”