Friday 07 September 2012
Footballers based at Premier League clubs have been some of the stars that have thrilled and inspired at the London 2012 Paralympic Games which ends this weekend.
Darren Harris from West Bromwich Albion and Everton's George Fletcher have featured for ParalympicsGB in the men’s football competition over the past 10 days, with Harris competing in the five-a-side tournament for visually impaired athletes while Fletcher has played in the seven-a-side event for athletes with cerebral palsy.
Fletcher has played for Everton since he was 11 and has revelled in his first Paralympics experience with the highlight being his goal in the 4-0 group-stage victory over the United States.
"It has been the best and the proudest moment of my life"
"I can't explain what that was like, especially scoring in front of 16,000 supporters who were there for you," he told premierleague.com. "We wanted to give the people something to smile about as we had lost our first two matches and it felt amazing to score, especially when wearing that GB shirt as well. It was out of this world.
"I will never forget the time I have had here. The Paralympic Games have been an amazing experience and it has been a great opportunity for me and my family. It has been the best and the proudest moment of my life. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for when we go to Rio."
Fletcher, 17, had cerebral palsy diagnosed at the age of 3 and has been with Everton Disability team since they came to his school.
"Everton have been a big help through this journey," said Fletcher. "They have played a massive role. They have been there since the beginning and have made me the player I am today.
"Playing for Everton has strengthened my body and they have done a lot for me and my social life. No matter how affected you are they will always make you feel extra special and that is what is great about it.
"You might not have confidence but at the end of whatever you do with Everton, I guarantee that that your confidence will grow and keep growing because they are great at what they do.
"The programmes that are run by Premier League clubs give more awareness to the sport and it gives people the opportunity to see that there are all sorts of disability sports that people can get involved with."
"The whole experience has been pretty immense to be honest"
Harris is competing in his second Paralympics and is one of the five-a-side team’s most experienced players, having amassed over 100 caps.
The former GB captain played a key role in helping ParalympicGB's five-a-side team qualify for Beijing in 2008 before quitting the sport in 2007 and taking part in that Paralympics as a judoka.
After winning judo silver at the 2007 Visually Impaired European Championships and bronze at the same event two years later, Harris returned to football in time to make the squad for the 2012 Paralympics.
"The whole experience has been pretty immense to be honest," Harris told premierleague.com. "I didn't get to go to the opening ceremony in Beijing but I was at this one and it was pretty emotional.
"It was so inspiring walking around the track and listening to the crowd going crazy.
"Being in front of a home crowd does make a difference; you really feel that you have got people that want you to do well. It's certainly the biggest stage that I have played on."
The 39-year-old is in his third season with Sporting Club Albion, which is part of West Bromwich Albion's charitable trust, winning the FA National Blind Futsal League title in 2011/12 as well as picking up the golden boot in the last two campaigns.
This year, The Football Association named Sporting Club Albion as the host of the West Midlands Blind Centre of Excellence with Baggies players Nicky Shorey and Ben Foster joining Harris at the official launch.
"Events like that are a sign that the club respect what we are doing and what we are trying to achieve and that's certainly a nice feeling," said Harris. "It's great that clubs have taken it on their own to run stuff like this.
"The Albion Foundation is really important"
"The Albion Foundation is really important. They have gone out into local schools and done stuff there to try to find players, first and foremost to try to increase participation but if those people find that they like it and are good at it then there is a performance pathway now for them to follow to get to the level that I have."
Harris and Fletcher are not the only players with links to Premier League clubs to have graced the Paralympic stage this week.
Everton's Roy Turnham has been a member of the five-a-side squad while the seven-a-side squad has featured prolific striker Michael Barker, who played alongside a young Wayne Rooney at Everton's Academy before his accident and spent significant time with Everton Disability.
Meanwhile, Arsenal stars Carl Jenkinson, Abou Diaby, Vito Mannone, and Francis Coquelin tried their hand at one of the most exciting games of the Paralympics, sitting volleyball.
The event was was organised by Arsenal in the Community, in conjunction with Volleyball England and London Lynx Volleyball Club, as part of the department's drive to expand both its Premier League 4 Sport and Disability programmes.
"It was good fun but really hard work as your hands are in the air the whole time and it gives your core a real workout," Jenkinson told the club's official website.