A Bristol-based support worker has found an inventive way of breaking down barriers and bringing local football enthusiasts together by creating a new football team for people with learning disabilities and autism.

The team was set up by United Response’s Tash Paphitis, herself a trained football coach, thanks to a ‘Small Sparks’ community grant dedicated to investing in local communities.

“Tash supports Joe at one of our services and they’re both football fanatics,” explains service manager Dan Roach. “Tash wanted to find a way for Joe to expand on his passion whilst also giving him the chance to increase his social circle and that’s how the idea of a new team came about.”

Joe is assistant coach to Tash and helps pump up the balls and take money before matches. The team meets every Wednesday and spends half an hour practicing skills such as dribbling, shooting and tackling, before playing a friendly game to show off what they’ve learnt.

“We’ve got male and female players in the team and a real mixture of abilities”, says Dan. “One of the things we’re most proud about is how far the more able players have come along in terms of working as a team and recognising one another’s level of ability. They used to be straight in for tackles and all about scoring goals, but now they give the less able members of the team the space and time to have a go with the ball.”                                                                                                                                          

Aside from teaching participants the core skills they need to become better football players, the fledgling team has also sparked new friendships for many of the players, including Joe.

“Before we set up this team, we were trying to think of ways to help increase Joe’s friendship circle,” says Dan. “Now, he’s made some really good friends. He invited them all to his birthday last year and we’re trying to arrange some Saturday get-togethers between him and one of the other players he gets on particularly well with. And it’s all happened naturally, through a shared love of the game – which is often how the best friendships start.”

The highlight for the team so far was a group visit to watch Bristol City play last year, complete with front row seats and a photo opportunity with the players at the end of the match.

Coach Tash is now thinking of ways to get the team moving onwards and upwards, including securing a local business to become its sponsor.

“We’re currently in talks with Weston College to arrange some friendlies and in the future hope to affiliate to a league,” she said. “It’s so rewarding seeing the enjoyment all the players get from being part of a team and having the opportunity to play a sport they love.”

And no one loves it more than Joe!

“This team means the world to him – he’s only ever missed a session when he’s been too poorly to come,” says Dan. “We have players who travel a couple of junctions on the motorway just to come and play for an hour. It’s been a real success story.”

To learn more about how United Response is striving to help improve the lives of people with disabilities, visit www.unitedresponse.org.uk.