(FIFA) – Sometimes it’s not clear how much a community craves an opportunity until it’s there to be fully embraced. The appetite CP United FC have been met with in the North West of England is case in point.
Now in its fifth year, the club are providing an environment for those with cerebral palsy (CP) or acquired brain injury to play the game, and its proved so popular co-founder Michelle Wilcock and her colleagues are “working round the clock” to keep up.
“It’s football, it’s for everybody,” she told FIFA.com. “The environment, the development opportunities and the way it’s all structured and run are key whether they’ve got a disability or not.”
“They’re just players like anyone else who wants to play football,” explained Wilcock, who previously worked in disability football coaching at Manchester United and the FA. “So why shouldn’t they have opportunities to play and develop just like someone who doesn’t have CP or another disability.”
While also offering support off the pitch for players and families, CP United have created a hub for a thriving football community, backed by a positive mindset.
“We never look at what they can’t do,” Wilcock said, “just: what can this player do? And that extends to them as people, too.”
Formed originally to help to fill gaps in the FA’s own offering of CP specific football – providing access for under-12s and adults – prior to a strategy change by the association, CP United now cover an area of 2,500 square kilometres and have nine sessions across the region four days a week. With Manchester as their main hub, players travel from miles around to take part and the benefits speak for themselves.
“It builds resilience, it creates ownership and it’s empowering,” Wilcock outlined. “It’s their game, it’s their development and we’re just here to help and support that. They can take it where they want to take it.”
Then there’s the added physical benefits of course, which can be seen right down in the early age groups, with some seeing striking progression. “A new player in our tots session came into us a few months ago using walking aids but he’s grown in confidence, in strength and his physical development has come on so much that he’s able to complete a session without his crutches,” Wilcock explained, with CP football helping add to the likes of physiotherapy. “We see little gains each week and they build up and make a big difference to the individual in everyday life as well as at football.”
And while the majority of the participants have been living with CP for most of their lives, they are also giving players to chance to rekindle their love of the game as they recover and live with brain injuries.
“We have a young man in our adults program who acquired a traumatic brain injury in his teens. He’s worked really hard to get his life back over the last ten years and to be able to play again is so important to him and his family. He can access football here but more than that he feels a part of the something.”
They’ve had success on the pitch, too, with their adult side winning global accolades at the FECPC international tournament in 2017 to go alongside domestic honours. But medals are not why Wilcock is dedicated to the club.
“It’s brilliant and that’s what every player wants – to be successful – but for us as coaches our motivation is the development. Success for us is seeing them come in and develop, grow the club programmes we offer and grow the charity – that’s how we measure our success.”