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16th Nov 2018

England’s Forgotten Team

Simon Lloyd

England’s amputee team were winning. Again.

Only a few minutes of the World Cup quarter-final had passed, but Brazil – as with Uruguay, Ireland, Mexico and Argentina before them – had fallen behind to an early opener from a dominant England side. This might have seemed like a formality, given how those previous four games had played out.

But it was not.

Shortly after taking the lead, England conceded. Having already scored 14 goals since arriving in Mexico, this was the first time their defence had been breached. No sooner had the game restarted, the Brazilians scored a second. England, for the first time in a long time, were losing.

Now in the unfamiliar position of having to chase the game, they failed to find a response. With the clock ticking down, Brazil scored a third to effectively end the contest, following it up with two more late goals to make the game appear more one-sided than it had been. 5-1 Brazil. England were out.

“Not only did we lose the game, but we came out of it with a bit of a thumping,” Owen Coyle Jr concedes. “There was no reason why we didn’t win the game other than we didn’t perform, but if we played Brazil again tomorrow I’d really back us to beat them. That, for me, is the hardest thing to take.”

It’s been a week since Coyle, England’s manager, returned home from San Juan de los Lagos, the small pilgrimage town 80 miles north-east of Guadalajara, which played host to the 2018 World Amputee Football Federation (WAFF) World Cup.

Though his jet lag has faded, the sense of disappointment has not.

“We should have done better than we did. It’s incredibly frustrating, especially because we have to wait two years now for the next major tournament.”

His team stayed on another few days in Mexico, beating Poland before losing to outgoing world champions Russia – ultimately finishing the tournament in sixth place. But it is the Brazil defeat that hurts most.

“I’m bitterly disappointed. It’s like any major tournament comedown when you’ve not won it or you haven’t gone as far as you want, it’s always going to be this way,” says Coyle.

England’s amputee team had arrived in Mexico with justifiably high hopes. Unbeaten in a year, their last defeat had come in agonising circumstances in the final of last year’s EAFF European Championships in Istanbul.

Played on the same day as Gareth Southgate’s side secured their passage to the 2018 World Cup with a 1-0 win in Lithuania, Coyle’s team lost in the dying seconds to hosts Turkey. The game was played before 42,000 people – an attendance ten times the size of the crowd that saw Harry Kane’s penalty settle the ‘other’ England match in Vilnius.

Months later, England won the Amp Futbol Cup in Warsaw – seen as one of the major tournaments in amputee football alongside the World Cup and European Championships – for the second year in succession. Having beaten Ukraine, Italy and Poland along the way, they retained the trophy with victory over Russia in the final.

Along with successes in smaller invitational tournaments held in Ireland and the United States, this goes some way to explaining why the sooner-than-anticipated World Cup exit came as such a blow for Coyle and his team.

“On reflection, considering the resources we have and how often we see one another in comparison to some of the other nations, we’ve done really well,” he admits.

It is a salient point. The recent achievements of England’s amputee side might already seem impressive, but they become even more admirable when you factor in that the team has operated without direct funding from the Football Association for over a decade.

In 2006 the FA dropped their financial support of the national amputee team, citing a lack of consistency in the running of national league fixtures, low participation rates, and the fact that the sport of amputee football didn’t hold Paralympic status as reasons for the decision.

Coyle, the 22-year-old son of former Burnley, Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers manager Owen, took on the job as England’s manager on a voluntary basis after the team’s funding was withdrawn.

“It’s been a huge honour to be England’s manager and I couldn’t turn it down – even if I am Scottish,” he jokes.

“I’d worked with amputee players before and hearing some of their stories and the adversities they’ve overcome to play the sport they love is just so inspiring. I didn’t want to reject the chance to help them grow – both as individual players and as a team.”

Coyle’s work since taking the role has gone beyond simply coaching players. Achieving Paralympic status for amputee football is beyond his control, but he has continued his predecessors’ work in expanding the national league for amputee players, thus helping to increase participation rates.

Eight clubs – Newcastle United, Everton, Manchester City and West Bromwich Albion in the north, and Brighton and Hove Albion, Arsenal, Peterborough United and Portsmouth in the south – all support the amputee sides which form the current national league. It’s from these teams that Coyle selects the players to represent his England outfit.

“I personally don’t understand why the England amputee team isn’t supported,” he says.“The FA support other impairment groups at the grassroots level as they do with us but then they also support them at elite level. They don’t do this for us, which makes things difficult. At times, it feels like we’ve been forgotten.

“I’m not saying funds need to be taken away from any other impairment teams in order to help us out, but with so much revenue coming into the English game these days, I’d like to see the FA put a little more in once in a while to help people like us out. It would make an enormous difference.”

Though his players have performed well at the tournaments they’ve entered in the last 18 months, the lack of financial support has meant they have had to rely on donations from private business and their own fundraising to cover costs.

“We’ve got lads standing outside shops on their crutches for seven or eight hours doing bucket collections,” Coyle said ahead of the World Cup. “That should never happen when you’re representing your country.

“We’re fortunate to be sponsored by Simply Business, an insurance broker in London. They’ve been phenomenal in terms of helping us. Playing at a World Cup would have been impossible without their support.”

The problems posed by the absence of FA funding were brought into sharp focus just two weeks before the team were set to depart for the World Cup. With the tournament looming, it emerged they were significantly below the amount of money required to participate in Mexico. “We’d have possibly got by in terms of feeding them, but it would have meant a huge battle for us when we got back in terms of the money we had to make up,” Coyle explains.

An online petition calling for the FA to provide last-minute funding was set up, with Simply Business again stepping in to help raise extra money. Though the FA didn’t offer any financial help, word did reach the Premier League, who promptly donated £10,000.

“They’re a fantastic organisation that are willing to help out regardless of the circumstances,” Coyle said. “It’s not really the Premier League’s jurisdiction to support us when we’re at a tournament. They didn’t have to step in but we’re incredibly grateful that they did.”

From this year onwards, the amputee football World Cups and European Championships move to four-year cycles, falling in line with their Fifa and Uefa equivalents. Looking to the future, it’s hoped the England team will receive FA funding once again by the time they compete in their next major tournament.

Since the Premier League’s intervention prior to the World Cup, the FA have been in touch with the England Amputee Football Association, with meetings scheduled for January to discuss how they will be able to provide support. Though encouraged by such a significant development, Coyle stresses that it’s crucial the team are backed in the long-term.

“It’s fantastic that they’re looking into it, but this isn’t just about a quick fix,” he says. “The difficulty we’re in is that they supported the team until 2006 and then dropped them. We had to pick up from scratch again so whatever deal we end up deciding, it needs to be one that decides the future for the younger players coming through.

“We want to be able to put a long-term plan in place to be able to support these guys. It matters a hell of a lot to them.”

Though he harbours ambitions to one day follow in his father’s footsteps, Coyle isn’t leaving his position as England boss any time soon. For him, there’s still plenty still to achieve.

“When I do decide to move on, I hope to do so knowing the FA have taken the team on as one of their own and the future for this amputee team is secured.

“Ultimately, as things stand, we’re still a charity. When the time comes, I want to leave knowing that they are an officially recognised football team and are able to represent their country with the Three Lions badge on their chest.”

“That,” he says, “would be a dream.”