In each issue, FotMob – the livescore app – are sponsoring a feature on inclusive and inspirational grassroots stories and assisting in their development by providing equipment vouchers to these special football clubs.
By Tayyiba Yunus. Images By Gem Atkinson.
Tayyiba Yunus meets the stars of one of grassroots football’s most exciting and inclusive teams. Sutton United FC Disability are changing perceptions and improving access for all, one goal at a time.
TGP’s visit to meet Steve King and the Sutton United FC Disability squad was an inspirational reminder of how club culture, values and high standards can transform lives on and off the pitch.
Steve is the Head Coach and Founder of Sutton United FC Disability and has overseen the disability programme since its formation in 2014. It is a part of the Sutton United Youth and Community Foundation, which aims to provide support for the local community, including pan-disability football, in a safe environment.
We met Steve and the Sutton United FC Disability team for a Saturday morning training session at Cheam Sports Club. The venue is acting as the team’s temporary base whilst Sutton’s home ground at Gander Green Lane undergoes renovations.
Steve talks me through their incredible setup as we observe the players train and get stuck into their drills. Since starting the team with a couple of players in the local park, it has spiralled into an oversubscribed club with players of all abilities and backgrounds.
“For us, we noticed the biggest increase in player turnout when the team moved from training in the local park to the Sutton United stadium. There was a huge rush and it goes to show what a great difference it makes when a team is properly recognised, provided with investment and facilities that are equal for all the players.”
This extends to providing players with bespoke training kits and tracksuits. “It’s important: they look and feel a part of the club.”
Steve’s belief in football being accessible to everyone goes hand in hand with the core values of Sutton United as a football club – in particular, the club’s commitment to the local community and ensuring equal opportunity for all. Everyone is treated the same and it was inspiring to see this in action during the training session.
The team isn’t just there to be a tick list – as Steve emphasises, he was only content to take on the role because the club were “all in and fully supportive from the start”.
Will and Harry were both part of the original Sutton team who used to train in the park on weekends with Steve. Harry looks back fondly on the club history and all its achievements. He is a Sutton United fan and not only a proud season ticket holder but was also a ball boy and club mascot for the club. Will has been a goalkeeper for as long as he can remember and “loves playing for Sutton United”.
We watch on with Will’s mum as he makes superb saves throughout the session and we can’t help but be inspired by his dedication to the game. She describes the team as “life changing” for her son, who struggled to find a club to play for before he found Sutton. It’s a great example of the impact the team has had on the personal lives of the players.
As with all grassroots clubs, the team is so much more than just an hour of training on a Saturday morning. It extends to deep friendships being formed and lives being transformed, purely through a love of the beautiful game.
When I speak to Ben about friendships and football, he tells me he will be best man for a teammate’s wedding next year. His arthritis meant he was unable to join in with competitive football with friends but by chance discovered Sutton United FC Disability and hasn’t looked back since.
“There are so many varying needs here, but we come here and we are all the same. We’re only here for an hour but that hour is sometimes what gets us through the week. We also have had so many good opportunities thanks to this club – we’ve played tournaments at Stamford Bridge, Arsenal and Brighton, amongst others. We’re very fortunate to have a club that tailors the sessions to our needs. The best thing is we are not stagnant; we’re really able to push ourselves to be the best players we can and win games in a competitive environment.”
“Every club has a responsibility to provide pathways in which players with a disability are easily able to access flexible, inclusive and accessible opportunities to enjoy the game.”
The team’s successes on the pitch are just as impressive as the life-changing impact it has had on players off the pitch. The U team reached the FA People’s Cup Final at St George’s Park in Staffordshire in 2019, which was broadcasted live on the BBC. It was a massive achievement for the club to finish runners-up and also experience playing at England’s training ground. In the same year, the team also won the annual Irish FA George Best Community Cup in Belfast.
Steve won individual awards for Adult Coach of the Year and Project of the Year at the Surrey FA Grassroots Football Awards 2020. Of the many impressive things about Sutton United FC Disability, the unity and bond of the team is something special to witness. It is unsurprising when Steve says he sees his personal awards as recognition for the hard work of the whole team that has made all its success possible. Likewise, the staff at Sutton United FC Disability and Cheam Sports Club have nothing but positive words about the efforts of the whole team in creating an organised and supportive environment for disability football in South London.
I speak to Steve about what the aim is going forward for both the club and disability football as a whole. In addition to developing a similar pan-disability setup for female and junior footballers, Steve would like to see more football clubs “taking responsibility” and providing opportunities for disabled footballers. “There is definitely a shortage of disability provisions for young adults. Every club has a responsibility to provide pathways in which players with a disability are easily able to access flexible, inclusive and accessible opportunities to enjoy the game. But at the moment there are very few clubs that are actually providing opportunities like this.”
Ben adds: “I would love to see more widely-known leagues, more people talking about disability football and raising awareness. It was great to see us in the FA People’s Cup Final on TV because it gives the sport more positive media attention. If it’s publicised more often, there’s a greater chance that it will reach all the people who would love to get involved, but who just don’t know that this exists.”
Ben’s point goes back to a familiar one within football: visibility and investment is so important in challenging perceptions and continuing to improve inclusivity within the sport. Our visit to Sutton United FC Disability exceeded well beyond the high expectations we arrived with. We left, galvanised by a club whose culture is not just an inspiration for disability football, but for grassroots football as a whole.