Declan's story: PL Kicks made me feel better about myself

2 Oct 2023
Premier League Disability Festival, Declan, Man Utd

From struggling through the pandemic to becoming a confident volunteer, how Man Utd helped one teenager shine

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This summer hundreds of young people from across England and Wales took part in three Premier League Disability Football Festivals.

The pan-disability events, featuring more than 50 professional clubs, celebrate the work that takes place all year round to make football accessible for all.

Here are the stories from some of those involved.

Declan (Man Utd) 

Twelve months may not seem like a long time for a teenager but for 16-year-old Declan, the last year has been lifechanging.

Declan was quiet, finding it difficult to make friends and ended up leaving his secondary school. He also received a diagnosis of autism.

"Lockdown was when my autism began to show through," he says. "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."

Although Declan started attending disability football sessions with Manchester United Foundation, run through Premier League Kicks, he initially struggled to get involved.

"His confidence was really low," says Foundation Disability and Inclusion Coordinator, Matt Pilkington.

"He was very reluctant to join in and he needed me to be on the periphery of sessions so that if something wasn't going right, I was on hand."

Declan, though, began to come out of shell with the help of Man Utd Foundation's tailored sessions that have a consistent structure every week.

He was not only helped by the Foundation on a Friday night. They also attend his new secondary school to offer guidance and support through further football and fitness sessions.

"My confidence has risen so much," he says. "I feel so much better about myself.

"I've been at really low levels in my life but now I'm at such a great place to carry on with my life. Manchester United Foundation have really helped me. 

"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."

Declan is now using his experiences to support others, volunteering to coach younger participants who were in the same position as he was.

"It means a lot to me, especially when you know what it's like," he says. "You think to yourself, 'What would I have wanted there?'

Premier League Disability Festival, Declan, Man Utd, v2

"Looking back a year ago, there's no way that I would have thought of doing things like that.

"It's been amazing and I feel like I can do it because of the confidence the coaches have given me."

Declan is one of many participants that are part of the Foundation’s pan-disability football programme and for Matt Pilkington, he is the perfect example of what can be achieved.

"Seeing how he has grown over the last 12 months makes us feel proud," he says. "That's one of the reasons why we do the programme, to see the impact that it has on young people.

"In our sessions, we not only want to help them become better footballers, we want them to become better people and make an inclusive society. Declan is a big part of that."

The Premier League Disability Football Festivals are a celebration of how Premier League Kicks, Premier League Inspires and Premier League Primary Stars connect young people aged from five to 18 with football, providing positive opportunities to help them to reach their potential.

Also in this series

Part 1: Premier League Disability Football Festival celebrates inclusivity
Part 2: How PL Disability Football Festivals make a difference
Part 3: Rosie's story: Liverpool helped me with my anxiety
Part 5: Matt Crossen: Disability programme creates unbelievable opportunities
Part 6: Elliott's story: Representing Burnley is a great experience

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