Kingswood footballer James Blackwell, from Hawkesbury Upton, targets Rio 2016 Paralympics

James Blackwell in action for England

James Blackwell (right, front row) lines up with the England squad at the CPISRA European Championships

First published in Sport
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Gazette Series: Photograph of the Author by , Sports editor covering the Thornbury, Dursley and Yate areas

WHEN James Blackwell was born his parents were told by doctors that he would never walk.

Now, he is part of the 7-a-side England Cerebral Palsy football squad and aiming to compete at the Rio 2016 Paralympics.

The 28-year-old, who grew up in Hawkesbury Upton and is in his second spell at Gloucestershire County League side Kingswood, made his international debut against USA in January this year and he recently helped them finish fifth at the CPISRA European Championships in Portugal.

Blackwell was born with cerebral palsy but his father Paul and mother Julie made sure he got plenty of exercise and he was walking at the normal age.

Only close family and friends knew about his disability, Blackwell revealing he only told his wife Holly one week before getting married last September.

One month later he joined up with the England squad for the first time at a training camp in Lilleshall and he has been a regular member of the side ever since.

He said: “My parents were told I would never walk, let alone play sport, but my Mum and Dad took me to physio three or four times a week to make sure I could walk.

“Most people don’t know I have cerebral palsy. I didn’t want people to take pity on me.

“It is every kid’s dream to play for your country but until you do it the feeling of putting the shirt on is unexplainable.

“My family have been proud, probably more than I have been personally from being told I couldn’t walk.”

The thought of playing cerebral palsy football never occurred to Blackwell until he came up against Ibrahima Diallo, who played at the London 2012 Paralympics for Great Britain, when in action for Kingswood against Bristol Academy in the 2012-13 season and decided to find out more by getting in touch with the FA’s national disability officer Jeff Davis.

Blackwell recalled: “I sent him an email to say I was interested in finding out more about it.

“He rang me up saying I was the kind of player they wanted to see so they sent a scout to watch me play in the summer at the end of pre-season. They saw enough to put me straight into the squad.”

Seven-a-side cerebral palsy footballers are given a classification between five, which is the most severe impairment, and eight.

As Blackwell is only affected down one side of his body he falls into the class seven category.

Teams must ensure at least one member from class 5 or 6 must be on the field throughout the match, and only two players may be class 8.

Blackwell is due to start attending coaching sessions over the next couple of months in Bath, where he will be working on strength and conditioning and receive help on how to deal with the pressure of competing for Great Britain at the Paralympics.

He said: “I’m part of the cycle for the Paralympics. Seeing players in the squad who played at London makes me want to push for Rio.

“I’ve been sent a strength and conditioning programme to do daily so if I keep up with that and prove myself, ability-wise I should be one of the main starters in the side.

“If England keep their position in the rankings we should have a lot of players in the squad.

“Being class seven helps me as well so I’d like to think I would be part of that. I’ve been getting good feedback from the coaches since October last year.”

Blackwell trains once a month with the England squad at St George’s Park and went away on a ten-day training camp to San Diego at the start of the year.

He also played games against Holland and Scotland before helping England win the ninth International Trophy of 7-a-side Football in Barcelona, which allowed him to be classified to enter international competitions.

Blackwell, a full back for Kingswood, started every game in midfield at the European Championships as England beat Portugal 5-0 and drew 1-1 with Ukraine, a full-time outfit who went on to win the competition.

After finishing second in the group behind Ukraine on goal difference, England were beaten 5-1 by Paralympic and world champions Russia in the quarter-finals.

They then went into the play-offs and Blackwell scored in their 7-1 win over Northern Ireland before their game against Scotland was cancelled due to a waterlogged pitch, meaning the sides shared fifth place.

The former Katharine Lady Berkeley’s School pupil said: “The Euros were a good eye-opener for that with two weeks away training and getting used to being in a room for a couple of hours with nothing to do.

“It was a different experience. I got to play against some challenging teams. You don’t appreciate the level and how good they are.”

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