Sam Smith is the James Milner of powered wheelchair football. “I’ve had that nickname for a while,” he says. “I’m reliable, versatile and can play in different positions. I think I’m always a seven out of 10 and the guys on our team are pretty quiet while I’m always talking. So yes, I was compared to Milner, which has its positives. I’m not the flair player, but every team needs someone like me.”
Along with his Northern Thunder teammates, Smith will take on West Bromwich Albion in Sunday’s Powerchair Cup final. The Baggies are the sport’s dominant team and the Thunder are the only team to beat them this season. It’s not a grudge game – there are English team-mates on both sides – but it’s an intense rivalry and will only be a storyline that will play out over the weekend of the FA Disability Cup Finals.
In a showcase of the best disability football, six cup finals will be played in front of spectators at St George’s Park on Saturday and Sunday and broadcast live on BT Sport. Visually Impaired, Blind, Deaf, Cerebral Palsy, Powered Wheelchair and Amputee versions of the game are given unprecedented presentation, and those involved in each variant hope it will help continue the sense of growth and progression.
Smith’s relationship with football goes back a long way. Born in Newcastle, he was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy at the age of three and lost his ability to walk by the age of 10, ending a teenage love affair with what he calls ‘the walking game’. But after his father was presented with a flyer promoting powerchair football, Smith found a new passion.
“There was a year where I was a little bit lost, watching my friends and my brothers play after school and not being able to join in,” he says. “But then I found power chair football and fell in love with it straight away.
“It’s something I have control over, maybe before my body lets me down. I knew in my head what I wanted to do, I had a football brain but physically I couldn’t do it. Nothing is holding me back now. There are no barriers, it’s me and this chair and it’s a level playing field. It’s really very empowering.”
Empowerment is a key component of disability sports, for athletes of all levels and for those who find inspiration in watching them. But there is now a serious attempt to strengthen disability football (in all its forms) as a sport in its own right. That year the FA announced its first disability football strategy. The focus was on the goal of increasing grassroots participation by 50% over the next three years. But there were also targets for more coaches and a greater focus on supporting the England national teams, the pinnacle of the game for disabled footballers.
Natasha Mead’s story is a perfect example of the opportunities opening up in disability football. The 27-year-old from Plymouth is a blind athlete, an all-rounder who has represented Great Britain in goalball and cricket and almost made it to the Paralympics as a sprinter.
She switched to football and plays for Brighton & Hove Albion, the only woman in the squad. She is also now an England international and is claiming a place in the first blind women’s squad after the team was formed this spring. “I definitely think the game is growing, especially the women’s game,” she says. “Hopefully we can have a women’s league in the near future.”
For Smith, who has played 14 games for England and was part of a winning team at the last European Championship, the focus and direction the national team offers helps push the powerchair game forward in a direct and interesting way. “It’s something that came through to us from England and left the shirt in a better place than you found it,” he says. That means improving as an athlete, but also the way the game is played.
“I think the biggest development over the last few years has been the development of a passing style,” says Smith. “In the early days it was really a lot more like bumper cars. All the chairs dripped into each other and it got a bit chaotic. But one thing we’ve always been told with England is to try and play that passing game, a more expansive version of the game and bring it back to our clubs to push the game forward and make it a little bit more exciting. ”
Smith hopes to showcase this style to an audience watching on Sunday. And, more importantly, beat West Brom. “Winning is the most important thing,” he says, “but it’s also a chance to showcase your sport, develop it and show that people with disabilities can compete at the highest level.”