Catherine Gilby, the FA’s Head of Para Performance spoke to Impetus’ Ben Gilby (no relation) about the launch of the newest Lionesses team, how the game is played and the existing aims for the squad as they look ahead to their first international competition (19/6/22).
Above: The Lionesses inaugural Blind Team. Photo: Getty Images, supplied to Impetus by: FA.
Last month it was announced that the latest addition to the Lionesses national women’s football teams would be an England Blind team. Catherine outlined the key moments in the journey of the squad.
“The formation of the England Women’s Blind team was a key commitment from The FA’s Football Your Way plan, which launched in October 2021 and pledged to develop, improve and raise awareness of Disability Football in England.
“The Women’s Blind team is one of many para football teams that train and compete at St. George’s Park, but the first to launch specifically as part of the Football Your Way plan. This was a priority for us ahead of the 2023 IBSA World Games in Birmingham, where the team will be competing as part of their developmental journey.”
The squad is one that contains some players who are quite to the new to the game and shaping a team from these developing players is the initial focus.
“In terms of hurdles, it’s been crucial to find the right players with the right levels and skillsets to establish a team and ultimately be able to perform internationally,” Catherine said.
“Some of these players have only played Blind football for just over a year. They have clear natural potential, but it’s been a clear focus of our coaching team to now turn them into a competitive and winning team. From a global perspective, there is also a need to develop knowledge and understanding of the women’s blind game.
“It was important for us to build a team based on skillsets. A mainstream football example would be that you wouldn’t win anything if you just had 11 great wingers – you have to have balance. So it’s been crucial for us to find players that complement each other and offer different attributes to the team.
“The players have been scouted through a variety of different ways – these include open trials and activity days that have been run by The FA – and then we’ve also scouted some players directly through activities in their club environments.
“Women’s Blind football – and Blind football in general – is still very much a growing sport, but there are an array of regional clubs and leagues that we were able to look to for the team. We hope with the formation of the England Women’s Blind team that this encourages even more players to go out and play locally, and one day they may be with us as part of the international setup.”
Catherine then talked through the inaugural Lionesses Blind squad. The team is currently made up of Katie Christopher, a sighted goalkeeper, Molly Ripley, Kaitlyn (under 18), Lucja (under 18), Alice Hopkins, Samantha Gough, Natasha Mead, and Nell Doubledee. There is a real mix of ages and experiences, with some younger players and some players who have represented other para teams internationally previously, such as Natasha Mead.
“We are really pleased with the inaugural squad and all of their individual qualities that they have brought so far – and we will learn more about each of the players as we play more competitive games. With each camp, we are looking to build up their individual games to help the group, and as we are very much at the start of the team’s performance journey, it’s a really exciting time to help these players develop and grow.”
These first members of the Lionesses blind squad have had to overcome their own individual challenges as well as more wider societal hurdles as Catherine outined.
“Historically, the answer to this would be a lack of opportunities as well as knowledge of where blind footballers can play competitively and safely with other blind players. It is challenging for schools to offer appropriately accessible sporting opportunities, football or otherwise. In relation to football, it can be difficult for a blind player to play with sighted players, for example in the playground, from both a performance and safety perspective.
“Now, we are seeing more and more teams and leagues form, and more opportunities arising for blind footballers – both men and women. The FA’s Football Your Way plan is looking to drive the growth of the game and the opportunities that can help the players.
“In terms of the actual physicalities of the game, there are many considerations for the players to be aware of. For some of our players who were born blind, they have never seen running, so they have to learn the techniques for that before then incorporating a ball.
“Blind football is five-a-side and played on a five-a-side pitch. The pitch has two metal sideboards that help keep the ball in play, but also are shaped in a way to help with audio cues.
“Each team has a fully-sighted goalkeeper but they are restricted to a small box. They are also there to help communicate cues to the players to inform them of what is happening on the pitch and where.
“The ball has metal panels built into it and ball bearings that rattle as the ball moves – this allows the team to know where the ball is, and to help with elements of the game like dribbling.
“The game also has a number of communication methods that mainstream football doesn’t have. For example, when a player approaches another player to tackle, they have to shout ‘Voy’ or it’s deemed a foul.
“Although all players have to wear eyeshades, for some of the players who have a degree of eyesight still, they have to play in eyeshades which give them a complete black-out. As each team has players with different levels of eyesight, this acts as a leveller to ensure the game is fair.
This brings its own challenges, for example running into an opposition player, or just, in general, finding your bearings on the pitch. However, the skills and experiences from playing blind football can have a hugely positive impact on daily living.
“These are all things we are helping to coach the players with individually based on their own backgrounds and performance needs.”
The squad have recently been in Italy taking part in development sessions ahead of their first tournament next year.
“We’re working towards the 2023 IBSA World Games in Birmingham,” Catherine said. “Here, the team will be competing against an array of other Women’s Blind international teams from across the world. Obviously, this will be a great opportunity to assess where the women’s team is in relation to the rest of the world and identify the key developmental needs for the future.
“However, we will also be looking at building in other competition opportunities, relevant to the performance level of the team, in order to ensure we are providing the right level of competition at different times on the developmental journey.
“Women’s Blind Football is still a relatively new offering internationally, so the levels will vary but we will build a team to go and compete as well as possible in every tournament they perform in, regardless of history or rivalries across countries. The top teams in the world at the moment include Argentina, Colombia, Japan, and Germany.
With the squad still in its early stages in terms of development, we closed our discussion by examining both short and medium-term goals for the Lionesses Blind team.
“Short term, we are delighted to have officially launched the team and are pleased this is the first team to come off the back of The FA’s Football Your Way plan. We want to now develop a team capable of winning matches and tournaments, but in the first instance getting the team to perform to the best of their abilities when competing at the highest level. We also want to help coach our players to be the best in the world and to showcase everything they are capable of on the pitch in competitive scenarios.
“Medium-term, we hope to inspire the next generation of Women’s Blind footballers to see that there is a pathway to playing at the highest level and to represent your country on the international stage. We hope this in turn helps unlock the game to be performed at the Paralympics as the Men’s game is. Women’s Blind Football is ready and it’s our time.”
To find out more, please head to: englandfootball.com/footballyourway.