For more than 100 children and young people aged nine to 16, the Premier League Disability Football Festival hosted at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground was an opportunity to create lasting memories.
Teams representing 15 clubs and involved in the Premier League’s Kicks, Inspires and Primary Stars community programmes took part in six-a-side tournaments, with the Premier League Trophy proudly on display.
Olivia regularly attends football sessions led by Albion in the Community and volunteers to help younger children.
“Olivia's story, to be honest, is incredible,” said Philip Broom, disability development officer at Albion in the Community. “You see a young girl who loves football with cerebral palsy, goes along to her mainstream local team and struggles to fit in.
“She came to us and found a really inclusive environment. That she could play against other girls and boys with cerebral palsy or other similar disabilities and it's an equal environment for her.
“However, she's now gone back into mainstream football sessions and that is what it's all about, having the confidence that we've given her, then going back and playing alongside her peers, who she goes to school with, which is incredible.”
Olivia added: “Playing football has literally changed my life. I really enjoy it, it’s very competitive and very tough.”
He is an ambassador for The Richard Whitehead Foundation, which seeks to identify and remove barriers for disabled young people who are facing physical and emotional challenges.
Speaking at Cobham, Toby said: “It's great to have opportunities like today. It's kids with disabilities meeting other kids with disabilities, which can be really beneficial for them.”
Toby’s Brighton side are currently league champions after his debut season. Alongside his team-mates, he has competed in Germany, Belgium and Italy as part of the Seagulls’ European campaign and explains what the camaraderie means to him.
“I'd never been around blind people before," he says. "So, to be around a full team of young blind lads who just love football was really a game-changer for me and it made me love the game even more. That’s why these things are beneficial”.
Alistair Patrick-Heselton knows the power of playing disability football.
After suffering a skull fracture and traumatic brain injury in a car accident in 2006, the former QPR and Wycombe Wanderers youth player spent two months in a coma. Doctors feared he may not walk again, and Alistair stopped playing football.
However, six years later he scored for England in the Paralympic World Cup final and represented Team GB at the 2012 Paralympic Games. Now aged 40, he credits the role football played in his recovery and acts as a mentor working with and inspiring the next generation.
“Football is about being with friends and just truly enjoying kicking the ball and chasing it around," he says. "Seeing the young players loving football on this special day is fantastic. I’m thankful that the Premier League are backing the sport.
“It's given people with disability a true pathway. I'm not just playing football just to be included and tick a box. I'm playing football to be recognised and become the best that I can be.”
Words by William Bitibiri