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Talking football with comedian and England international Josh Pugh

Anti-Discrimination Members

Comedian and England partially sighted international footballer Josh Pugh shares how his love of the game has helped his career flourish on the stage.

Comedian Josh Pugh plays for England's partially sighted football team
Comedian Josh Pugh plays for England's partially sighted football team

How many of us grow up dreaming of playing football for our country? And how many more want to achieve recognition on stage, with audiences hanging off our every word? There cannot be many people who have achieved not just one, but both of those things.

Comedian Josh Pugh was David Beckham-mad as a football-loving youngster and a talented player in his own right, but difficulties with his vision and being diagnosed as partially sighted appeared to have ended his sporting dreams.

However, a chance meeting with a fellow visually impaired player produced not only a long-lasting friendship, but led to an England international career that is now approaching 100 caps, and a revived sense of self-confidence that has seen the 34-year-old shoot to stardom on the stage.

Having supported global stars like Ricky Gervais and written for some of the UK's best-loved TV shows, Pugh's recent headline tour wowed audiences and critics alike, and he is back out on the road in 2024.

Josh on his 'other' stage
Josh on his 'other' stage

Here, he tells us how his love of the game and the opportunities it has given him created the confidence, discipline and work ethic needed to enjoy success in a very different arena.

Josh Pugh, in his own words

I honestly attribute everything I have achieved so far in my comedy career to football.

The arts and sport are so completely different, and yet there are similarities for performers too. I still remember doing my first stand-up more than ten years ago, having the same thoughts and worries as when I joined my first football team as a kid – I was nervous, scared, and worried if people were going to accept me.

Just like the seven-year-old me with football, as soon as I tried comedy, I was addicted. And just like when I started taking the game seriously, I am determined to keep working hard, and become as good as I can.

It might surprise you, but playing football and working in comedy both involve working hard, being honest with yourself, setting goals, developing a thick skin, being a good team-mate and building up to a nerve-wracking event at the end of it.

A big match and a stand-up show are very similar: you have to make a plan, execute the plan, reflect on the plan and then think about what you will do better next time. If you can do that, keep learning and keep improving, then before you know it, you'll have become really good, either on the pitch, or on the stage.

Falling for football

My comedy journey began just over a decade ago, but my love of football has been there for a very long time.

My earliest football memory is is probably EURO 96. I had a t-shirt with the tournament logo on, which I think my mum had got me from a supermarket, and I remember the famous Poborsky chip, and Gazza lying on the ground doing the "dentist's chair" celebration after he scored for England against Scotland.

I don't think I watched the final, but I remember being able to stay up later to watch the semi-final between England and Germany. I can remember thinking I've not got to go to bed if it goes to extra-time, and I wanted it to go to penalties so that I could stay up later.

At that time, I was football-mad, but very rarely got to half-time watching a game, because like most kids, I'd want to get outside and play myself. I loved it but I couldn’t just sit still and watch.

It was around the same time, I was about seven, when I first joined a team. We were playing football at my friend's grandma's house, and their neighbour poked his head over the fence to say they were starting a team and we could get involved. It seems his scouting network didn’t go beyond the end of his own driveway, but we had a good team and I just loved it straight away.

I loved David Beckham, so I wanted to be a right-midfielder and I was always trying to copy him and take all the corners. To complete the look, I also used to wear tape around my socks. I didn’t know why, but all the skilful players seemed to do it, so I needed to do the same.

Problems turn to opportunity

I was a good player in these younger age groups and on the school playground, but I found that if it was sunny, or we played under floodlights, I wasn’t as good and I couldn’t see the ball well. As we began playing 11-a-side games and pitches got bigger, I had the same problem.

Despite my problems on the pitch, I probably got into some teams I shouldn't have, just because I loved making people laugh and was a nice team-mate to be around. I would go to new teams and train in small-sided games and everybody would be really excited about this new player they'd got, but then, we would get to a matchday and I just couldn't see far enough.

Eventually, I was told I was partially sighted. I didn’t really know what it meant at the time, but I just couldn’t see the ball, and I wasn’t aware of any other options for people like me, so aged about eleven I reluctantly made the decision to drop out of the game.

It would have been hard to imagine then that I'd have achieved what I have now. And for that, there are a few people to whom I owe a big thank you. The main one is probably my friend and England captain, John McDougall.

I first met John at college, playing a casual game of seven-a-side. He was also partially sighted, but had had full vision until he was 16 and was now experiencing the same issues I had been through, so he had played more organised football with proper coaching, but without suffering from low vision, whereas I was the opposite.

It was John who first introduced me to partially sighted football, explained the sport, which is essentially the same as futsal, and told me that there was even an England team. He has always been a huge positive influence on me, championing me and believing in me as a player when I didn’t.

How does partially sighted football differ from futsal?

In partially sighted football, outfield players must be B2/B3 (partially sighted) although goalkeepers are sighted. Goalkeepers must stay in their goal area, and have a crucial role in communicating with the outfield players.

Other useful adaptations include playing areas being free of other markings, and the ball being a colour that clearly contrasts from the pitch and lines.

I started playing for his club team and was eventually invited to an England training camp when I was 19. Then, when Chris Holland, a former professional player with Newcastle United, had to drop out of the squad, I was called up for the World Championships.

Getting picked up to go to the airport for my first tournament was such a special moment, and still one of my favourite memories. I was at my grandparents' house and the whole street came out to wave me off.

Changing attitudes and reflecting on the journey

On the flip side of that, at that young age, I still hadn’t really come to terms with my visual impairment. You learn to hide it, because you feel that people will treat you differently. I can remember another time, being at the airport in my England gear and someone asking me what squad I was with. I'd lie and say I was with the Under-21s.

Now, as one of the older members of the team, I see kids coming straight out and saying they're with the England partially sighted team. I remember being that 19-year-old in the squad and I wish I could have felt able to do that at their age.

It's such a cliché but it's also special to see those young team-mates growing into men, and I really believe it's because of what the game gives them. I'm a dad now, my son is two, and he goes to soccer tots sessions. When you fill in the forms, they now ask about disabilities or health conditions to be aware of, which for someone like me, is really important. It makes me a little bit emotional when I think how far we have come since I was a kid and coaches didn’t really understand any of my issues.

I take every opportunity I can to speak about these subjects and my experiences of partially sighted football on my social media platforms. The more it's out there and the more people get involved and are exposed to it, the better it will be for the sport and disabled players.

Looking back on the past 15 years, playing partially sighted football has helped give me some unbelievable memories. Of them all, I think my favourite was reaching the World Championships final with England in 2019, against Ukraine. We ended up losing 6-2, but I scored the opening goal early in the game, and while it lasted, that feeling was just amazing.

The key, whether it's football, comedy or anything else, is to love what you are doing at whatever level you are doing it.

When people ask about partially sighted football, my advice is always just to give it a go, even if you've had a bad experience with the 11-a-side game. No matter your ability or your level of sight, there is something out there for you. If you can access some sort of small-sided football, either with a club, or just with friends to begin with, then you're on the right track.

I think of myself starting out with comedy as I say this: you might not be very good for a while, and you're going to make mistakes, but don’t let it knock you, keep going and above all, have fun.

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