More than 450 participants representing more than 40 professional football clubs came together to celebrate the Premier League’s year-round commitment to providing access to football for all.
The pan-disability football festivals create opportunities for players to develop their skills and confidence in a supportive environment, catering for the needs of people who are neurodivergent and those who have sensory or physical disabilities.
Here are the stories from some of those involved.
Declan (Manchester United Foundation participant)
“Lockdown was when my autism began to show through. I started struggling. That time away from school and coming back to school really took its toll on me. I found it more difficult to adapt.
“I felt like I was different to everyone else. Communication was one of my biggest challenges. I'd be sitting there and wouldn't know what to say.
“Since starting disability football sessions with Manchester United last year, my confidence has risen. I feel so much better about myself.
“I've been at low levels in my life but now I'm at such a great place to carry on with my life. I have a lot of friends now and it’s nice, especially on days like the festival, when you feel like you're really part of something.”
Matt Crossen (England Cerebral Palsy football captain)
“Ten years ago, I didn’t know anything about cerebral palsy football or disability sports. Whatever the disability, whatever the discipline was in the sport, I never knew a thing about it. Fast forward to now, it's night and day.
“It’s unbelievable to see these opportunities. To see the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool here is massive. To be in a tournament with them, you can't put into words what it means for young people.
“When the kids get out on the pitch and show their ability, they forget about the barriers that they may have faced previously, they just enjoy themselves. That's massive.
“A disability is not anything to hide or to be worried about, because these young people prove it can be done.
“Days like the disability football festival are special. It's inspiring and fantastic to watch. I love being a part of these days and I'm privileged to be here.”
Rosie (Liverpool FC Foundation participant)
“When I first started football sessions, I was a bit anxious and overwhelmed.
“But the coaches ask you how you are, if you want to join in, if you would like them to be with you in the session. We decide what we want to do.
“During COVID I had a difficult time. Liverpool offered me video calls as well as someone to sit in with me throughout all the online sessions. They were there for me and helped me massively. It's turned my life around.
“Liverpool are like your family. They're just amazing.
“I'm proud of myself because the difference in me from five years ago has been mind-blowing.
“If I hadn't joined the Foundation, I don’t know where I'd be today. I've changed into a better person. I wouldn’t go out or talk to anyone. I'm not shy now!”
Safian (Watford FC Community Sport and Education Trust participant)
“It’s fun, it’s good to do things that you really, really like.
“I just love football, it’s my life really. I just really, really love it.
“It’s a great achievement coming here and playing different teams you’ve never played before. Just coming here and having fun. Everyone is putting the effort in and having fun.”
Matt Pilkington (Disability and Inclusion Officer, Manchester United Foundation)
“In our sessions, we not only want to help the participants become better footballers, we want them to become better people and make an inclusive society.
"We want to create an environment where everybody feels comfortable regardless of their ability. We'll find a way to involve everybody.
“We work in some of the most challenging areas in Manchester and to give young people these opportunities to come to a tournament like this, to come to the sessions on a Friday evening and feel part of a team, feel part of a community – it's absolutely massive."
Elliott (Burnley FC in the Community participant)
“Taking part in a football festival representing the club I support is really big. It’s a great experience.
“I have autism and ADHD. It makes me think in different ways than other people.
“When there are other kids like me or who don't understand the rules, I try to help them. I've been able to do that because of everything that Burnley have taught me.
“It's also helped me at home because I'm realising not everything revolves around me. I don't have to be the person always getting something or doing something, it can be other people in my house too.”
Sarah Burn (Premier League Kicks Coordinator, Newcastle United Foundation)
“If you can engage with someone, the possibilities are endless. It's about so much more than football and participants realise that when they start.
“Before the event in Burnley some of our team had never been on a bus or been at a service station. This is broadening horizons. Sometimes you forget such small things can make such a massive impact on an individual.
“Our young people have shown leadership and resilience and they've also received support, encouragement and motivation from the other teams.
“When I go to events like the disability football festival and see all the participants in one place it hits home about the impact we can have.
“Hearing them say how much they’ve enjoyed the day or how they have made a link with someone from another team, I can’t put into words what that means.”
The Premier League Disability Football Festivals are a celebration of how the Premier League’s community programmes – Premier League Kicks, Inspires and Primary Stars - connect young people aged from five to 18 with football, providing positive opportunities to help them to reach their potential.