NDFF REFEREE HENRY
'When I was 14, a good school friend of mine began to ask me to come to his weekly football club. I initially resisted, this was because I had a fear of strangers borne from a lot of discrimination in my earlier years because of my autism. I also didn't much care for football. My exposure to playing was tainted by abuse from other kids and my exposure to professional football was a load of angry shouty men who tended to fall over and cry if they stubbed their toe.
I resisted for a year before he finally managed to convince me to turn up to a training session, I had recently turned 15.
The place I arrived at was a run down AstroTurf pitch next to a clubhouse. I approached anxiously, trailing my friend. Then the coach found me and where I expected a stern and single track minded man - akin to an old P.E. teacher I'd had - I found a really kindly, gentle man teaching a group of kids who, after being typically roudy and energetic, were happy and at ease where they were. Considering that it was a mixed age disability squad, and that a lot of them had been through the same abuse as me, this was beyond surprising - it was inspiring.
I quickly became accustomed to the group and relaxed, looking forward to the Monday evening training sessions - and especially to the monthly tournaments that the various disability coaches had set up themselves - there was no league for disability football.
I developed a sense of trust and camaraderie that I'd never had before, because I had never been in a team like this. A team that was so innocently, but also understandingly, accepting.
I played goalkeeper as the team went strong for year after year - I even played for an adult team when I got to 16. Unfortunately that one largely broke down.
I stayed with the team until I was 17 before my coach came up to me and floated the idea of being a coach myself. He said there was a Level 1 QCF award coming up and even offered the club to pay for it.
Needless to say I jumped at the opportunity and became a qualified Level 1 football coach in the July of that year. I went on to do a module in coaching disability football and 3 years later I'm still coaching my team. I also branched out and taught a team of U12 girls for a year.
When I was 19, I received word that the FA Development Officer (Sara, who's passing on this story) was offering an opportunity to become a referee in a new monthly tournament for the disability teams I had previously played with and against. Naturally I said yes and trained to become a referee specific for that league. Since then I have also refereed for many school tournaments - including the School Games at the University of Nottingham.
I still referee today.
When I started out at my club I was an isolated recluse with a small group of friends and no future goals for myself. I couldn't handle basic social interactions and I didn't have the confidence to do so much as talk, let alone work, with others - or teach.
Football itself didn't help me - I don't think it helps many people at all by itself - but the people that engaged around the sport, that drove the development of people within the sport, that gave their own time to enrich somebody else's? They made a huge difference.
Without them and the opportunities they gave me there's a very good chance I would be at home, applying for filler jobs and sleeping out the day. I would not be in University now, working towards a degree in Paramedic Science. I wouldn't have the experience or the people around that I do now.
And trying not to sound overly dramatic, without the personal development that working in and with football gave me, there's a very real possibility that my aspirations might have just stayed dreams.
I still coach and referee football. It's the least I could do to say thank you.’