Blind academy is tackling football
The UK's largest specialist college for the blind is launching a football academy for teenagers following its success in helping the British team to qualify for the Paralympic Games.
Tony Larkin, assistant director of learning and skills at the Royal National College for the Blind and the team's coach, has led the players to their first Paralympics in Beijing this September with a team largely formed from former students of the college.
But despite Britain being ranked second in Europe and fifth in the world, the sport is in its infancy here, with a league of just four teams. The creation of the academy is intended to change that, while making sure players can keep up their general education.
Mr Larkin, a professional football player for 14 years, said: "We are up against teams like Spain with a full-time coach and players who are full time. It's the same in Brazil. We don't have that at the moment, but the football academy will help us to counter that when we compete against other countries."
Blind football is played with five people in a team, with sighted goalkeepers and barriers to keep the ball in play. The ball contains a rattle for players to locate it, and opponents approaching to make a tackle must shout out to give the player on the ball warning and to prevent collisions.
Players use their spatial awareness and training to track their team- mates' movements and stay on course for the opposition's goal, but they also have assistants behind the goal to help their navigation.
Despite its highly specialised skills, Mr Larkin said some of the British team had never played the game until they arrived at the college in Hereford.
Lee Greatbatch, now 25 and a fixture in the team for six years, did not even know that blind people could play football until he was 17.
Ajmal Ahmed, the captain, on the other hand, was football mad from a young age. He was a Liverpool season-ticket holder who would attend with his radio to listen to the commentary. The college gave him the chance to live his dream of playing for his country.
Facilities at the new academy, which opens this summer, are good enough for it to have been chosen to host a tournament - the 2010 World Championships for blind football.
The players have dedicated facilities for 18 hours of training a week, alongside their studies. Mr Larkin said these, together with the tournament, would stand the British team in good stead for the Paralympics in London.
"We are looking for 10 academy players now," he said. "They could be the ones that play in London in 2012."
The team has an earlier date with fame, however. It will be the only British side playing at the Euro 2008 championships, in an exhibition blind game against Spain, the top European side, in Basle before the quarter-finals.