History was made in Bangor on 8 November when Wales played their first learning disability international against Northern Ireland, the conclusion of an 18-month project by the Football Association of Wales (FAW) to get a team assembled.
Part of a programme that has also seen the creation of regional squads for players with learning disabilities, the national side's debut at Bangor City FC's Nantporth Ground was attended by almost 500 people. The home supporters witnessed a 2-0 defeat for their team against a far more experienced Northern Irish outfit.
As many as 1,300 players have been assessed by the FAW since the start of 2011, with 16 chosen for the squad against Northern Ireland. They attended two training camps, in September and October, something head coach Grant Kalahar says was a key objective. "After achieving our first goal of setting a professional culture of preparation, this was a great first step towards our next goal of stamping the Welsh way on our performances," said Kalahar. "Our staff were first class and the squad deserved their little piece of Welsh football history."
To underpin the national team, regional squads of around 60 players have been developed in the south, west and north of the country, providing talented players with high quality fortnightly coaching sessions. In addition, each of the players involved train weekly with their local pan-disability team and participate in monthly regional fixtures. During an average week 25 pan-disability football clubs run coaching sessions which provide more than 500 playing opportunities nationally.
The team's next fixture will be against England on 17 March at the new English National Football Centre, St George's Park, while the long-term aim is to participate in the Inas European Football Championships. With plans also afoot over the next 12 months for a deaf futsal squad, as well as the development of performance programmes for cerebral palsy and partially-sighted groups, disability football is a key priority for the FAW.
"Our disability programme is a key part of our desire to create more opportunities for players in Wales by diversifying the differing groups of people that have access to play regularly," said technical director, Osian Roberts. "We have developed a nationwide programme of 24 clubs and three regional leagues to provide regular grassroots playing opportunities for people with disabilities in a small-sided game format that suits their ability. That remains our key aim in this area.
"However, by developing national squads like our learning disabilities team we are providing talented players with the opportunity to progress and fulfil their potential. We are proud of our disability programme and it was a key area of our work highlighted in our portfolio to achieve a sixth star in the UEFA Grassroots Charter."
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