I first got interested in playing football from a young age back in school. I loved watching it on TV, I was inspired by these great players like Eric Cantona and Alan Shearer. They were so talented I wanted to copy them, they wanted to be the best they could be and so did I.

I loved playing football at school. I went to a school that was a mix of mainstream and SEN students, but we played together. That was great for me because I got to meet different people and feel included.

It wasn’t easy at first, I was a beginner and sometimes I was picked last which hurt me, but I tried to do my best and do my talking on the pitch! I really enjoyed being part of a team and working together, and having fun.

After I left school though, I didn’t get many chances to play football, or take part in any sports. It was hard for me to find people to play with, and there weren’t many opportunities I could find for people with a learning disability . I really missed it, and the feeling of socialising and connecting with people like I was used to.

When I started working at Mencap in 2017, I heard they had a football team that plays in a charity five-a-side league against other charity teams. I asked if I could play and when they said I could I was so excited to be involved. I was welcomed with open arms, and made me feel great because I felt included and valued again.

 

A five a side football match on an artificial pitch, with teams in blue and pink shirts.

Vijay in action with Mencap FC, playing in pink


I’ve been playing ever since and now I’m even the captain of the team! That means I have responsibility for getting new players, letting people know when games are, and talking to the other team captains on the WhatsApp group to make sure fixtures go ahead.  

And of course I lead the team and encourage players to try their best and win, but to have a good time as well. Playing and taking part is bigger than winning or losing at the end of the day. I always want to win, but it’s about having fun more. Saying that, we won five games out of nine last season which was our best ever!

Playing with the Mencap team gave me the same feeling as when I was back on the school playground, playing with my friends. Being part of the team has given me more confidence, I feel empowered now as well by being captain. We even have colleagues who come along sometimes as cheerleaders to watch our games and give us all a boost, and that’s been awesome!

Though playing football is a social activity itself, being on the team has given me lots more opportunities to socialise too. Before I joined Mencap I didn’t have many opportunities to do something as simple as going to the pub to have a chat with people, but now I get to do that a lot with my teammates. We’ve been bowling and played darts in the past as well, lots of other sports activities!

Vijay standing next to the UEFA Champions League Trophy with a red phone box in the background

Vijay with the UEFA Champions League trophy

Football has given me much more than just a physical activity. What I would like to see is lots more opportunities for people with a learning disability to take part in sports, because it opens up the chance to take part in many more activities and socialise and that builds up your self-esteem and your confidence.

 I don't want people to judge and assume that people with learning disability can't get involved - that's totally wrong! With the right support, we can achieve things both in sport and in life.