FA Disability Cup finals weekend illustrates that football is for all | Soccer

Rhyce Ramsden is an electric winger with a silken touch and a floppy centre parting. When he plays he gets clattered from pillar to post. He was man of the match on Saturday as his team won the trophy they covet the most and he did it on one leg. As far as nicknames go, ‘the amputee Jack Grealish’ sounds about right.

“You know what they’re calling me? Not Jack Grealish, but Fat Grealish,” said Ramsden, after his Everton side ran out 4-2 winners over Portsmouth at the FA Disability Cup finals. “I’ll take it though. Being here playing in the Cup, never mind winning it, it’s surreal, it’s mad.”

He also confirmed there will be no four-day bender to follow. “I might treat myself to a McDonalds on the way home, but that will be it.”

Amputee football is a version of the national sport that is fast, highly technical and acutely dangerous. Ramsden may be stocky but he has the acceleration of a sprinter and according to one of his coaches “could beat a two-legger in a straight line race”.

During the final he twice had a crutch chopped in half by an unsparing Portsmouth tackle. However, he also finished a cute one-two to open the scoring, killed a long ball at pace, then rolled a shot past the keeper for his second. He then laid on a decisive assist that bisected a massed defence.

He stood out, but he was hardly the only impressive player on display; the amputee final was as enthralling and accomplished as anything you might have seen in mainstream football last season.

The Disability Cup finals were first staged in 2016 and now take in six different disciplines of football. Alongside the amputee match on Saturday, there were also partially sighted and blind finals. On Sunday, the cerebral palsy, deaf and powerchair showpieces will follow.

Each game has its own variations on the rules; from simple things such as the number of players or size of the pitch to more distinct complexities such as, in the blind game, the necessity of saying the word ‘voy’ to announce your presence before challenging for the ball. But at heart the sport remains assuredly the same, the point of the finals being not only to determine success and reward endeavour, but to broadcast that football is for all.

Matches are held at St George’s Park, the bucolic ‘Home of England’ in the Staffordshire countryside. The messaging within the complex reinforces the theme of inclusion: on a wall of shirts belonging to ‘England heroes’ the scarlet effort worn by Paul Scholes when scoring a hat-trick against Poland in 1999 sits next to that of David Clark who scored 128 goals in 144 games for England’s blind team and finished fourth in the world championships in 2010.

It is not easy to score goals in blind football, small goals and fully sighted goalkeepers further complicating a version of the sport already absent the sense that defines the non-disabled game.

Brighton claimed a narrow victory over the Royal National College for the Blind, a rematch of last year’s final that was decided by Hamed Ebrahim’s low left-foot drive in the first half. Abdullah edged RNC’s England international Rainbow Mbunagi as the game’s dominant player, but both shared the close control and shooting instinct that are the decisive characteristics of the game.

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Rhyce Ramsden gives an interview after the final.
Rhyce Ramsden gives an interview after the final. Photograph: BT Sport

It is also worth noting that Brighton won their first Disability Cup after signing RNC’s captain, Darren Harris, last summer. Harris, who is England’s most decorated blind player with 157 caps and an icon of the game, exhibited excellent footwork, indefatigable running and elite timewasting, dancing slowly across the pitch to take a corner late in the second half before charming the referee. “I love this game,” he whispered to the man in black.

Harris, Mbunagi and Ramsden are now benefiting from the exposure of TV coverage, with BT Sport showing the games live and Channel 4 airing a highlights package from next weekend. Visibility is what disability football needs, both to encourage participation and to grow the elite end of the game (the England amputee team, which won its first international tournament in 15 years last week, is not affiliated to the FA and remains a charitable operation).

The presence of the cameras also boosted some of the performances, especially in the partially sighted final, where Scorpions FC beat Merseyside Blind & VI 2-1, to scenes of jubilation on the St George’s Park futsal pitch.

Captain Tom Lamb not only poked home Scorpions’ second goal (the first was an astounding backheel flick from Daniel Angus), he claimed the man of the match award and did a Jordan Henderson bum shuffle in lifting the trophy.

He said the visibility provided by TV coverage was key. “Playing at the home of football, not a lot of people get to do it,” he said. “It’s really important that young disabled people can see it, to know that it’s possible.

“Sport gives so much and can really help people grow. So a day like today is really great.”