Matt Crossen: England cerebral palsy captain on culture and change in disability football

Matt Crossen doesn't remember the exact moment he suffered the stroke, but his recollection of the aftermath couldn't be clearer. Stripped of the ability to walk, read or write, there was one thing on his mind as he lay in hospital.

Matt Crossen: England cerebral palsy captain on culture and change in disability football
Matt Crossen: England cerebral palsy captain on culture and change in disability football

"There was something inside me which meant I knew straight away I was going to get back to football: I just knew it," he said.

Ten years on, the former semi-professional - who now captains England's cerebral palsy team - still suffers from pins and needles which sweep the left side of his body. The physical impact of the incident is only one half of the story, though.

Crossen's journey from highly rated youngster to the top of the 'para' game, encompassing impairments ranging from partial sight to cerebral palsy, has also been a mental battle.

From dealing with dashed dreams of becoming a professional footballer to embracing his Para-athlete status, Crossen, 34, has undergone a life-changing switch of identities.

This is the story of that transformation, from the trauma of paralysis to a tilt at a title that continues to elude England's men's teams across all forms of the game: the European Championship.

It's a scene eerily familiar to any English football fan: the latter stages of a knockout tournament, hopes riding high and a formidable foe lying in wait.

Except this isn't Wembley in 1996 or 2021. Or Australia in 2023. This is Sicily six months ago, the setting of the cerebral palsy Euros final. And forget images of 11 players waiting pensively for penalties: England only have seven men on the pitch.

Fortunately, this is less to do with breaking rules than it is abiding by the laws of the game. Cerebral palsy teams are made up of seven players, one of a number of adaptations to aid athletes dealing with neurological impairments. The smaller-sided games arguably place an even greater emphasis on the main protagonists. Crossen, England's captain for the past six years, is one. It's a role he relishes.

"I kept saying to the lads throughout the tournament, 'pressure is a privilege'," he told BBC Sport.

"The pressure that we're going to feel isn't going to kill you: it's just something that you should be thriving off."

Crossen's perspective is driven by painful experience. Ten years ago, while speaking to students at a local college, he suffered a stroke that paralysed the left side of his body. Crossen was just 23 years old.

"I completely lost all feeling and it felt like my arm was right in the air, even though I had it across my chest; that's how weird it was," he said.

There were no warning signs. According to Crossen, doctors who ran tests after the stroke were left so puzzled, they were interested in examining the incident as part of a medical study.

The midfielder had already racked up 16 games playing for Northern League side Marske United in the ninth tier of English football when his stroke struck. His return to the pitch - in any form of the game - was far from a foregone conclusion.

During a six-day stay in hospital, Crossen had to learn to walk, read and write again. Remarkably, just a month and a half later, he was back in the gym, preparing to play.

"I was doing a spin class, trying to get my legs and co-ordination going. I was all over the place," joked Crossen.

The England captain says a clear-eyed focus was crucial to the pace of his recovery. For him, there was one goal: playing football.

"That's the only thing that was in my mind," he said, reflecting on his stay in hospital.

"I wasn't even thinking, 'Can it happen again?' or 'What happens next?' Football was the only thing that was in my head.

"I'd spoken to the doctor and the surgeon about my head, where the clot was, and I just thought, 'right, if it's a freak incident, my body is in good condition, I'll just focus on football and that's it'.

"I've always been of the thought that everything happens for a reason, so that's how I saw it."

Crossen's devotion reaped almost immediate dividends. The head of England's Para-football team heard about his stroke and offer the Teesside-born playmaker a trial.

A year after learning to walk again, Crossen was about to taste international football for the first time. But his psychological battle was far from over.

"Travelling to my first camp was more mentally draining than the sessions," he said.

"You're worrying, 'am I going to be good enough, am I going to fit in?'"

Matt Crossen: England cerebral palsy captain on culture and change in disability football
Matt Crossen: England cerebral palsy captain on culture and change in disability football

Crossen's trepidation was familiar to Dr Jamie Barker, England's Para-football psychologist for the past 10 years. Barker says that 'career termination', which, in Crossen's case, involved the end of his time in the semi-professional game and the beginning of his Para-football career, can have significant long-term effects on a player's state of mind.

"With somebody like Matt, he's changing how he lives his life," Barker explained.

He says that, in some cases, the transition has been so taxing that players have been reluctant to publicly highlight their Para-athlete status, recalling a number of past squad members who neglected to mention their England call-ups on social media.

"We had players that came to camps, wore the kit and played for England, but outside of that, didn't really publicise that [their inclusion in the team]," he says.

"I'm not saying you need to show it off, but something as big as playing for England that you don't disclose, seems a bit strange."

According to Barker, the struggle can stem from a difficulty in accepting what is effectively a new identity.

"In some senses, maybe people never fully accept that they have a disability identity," he said.

"The hypothesis would be that if there's an incongruence of identity - a difference between who we define as and the reality of our existence - that can lead to short-term and maybe long-term mental health challenges.

"People feel they are essentially in an environment that they don't really identify with, doing things with people they don't really connect with. Just think about how isolating that could potentially be."

But Barker believes the tide is turning, citing a rise in the number of players promoting themselves as Para-athletes.

It's a trend that has coincided with a concerted effort to improve England's Para-football culture. In 2020, concerns were raised anonymously by a number of national team players.

Although the FA did not reveal the exact nature of the issues, a subsequent survey included questions such as: 'Are you aware of times when there has been poor behaviour towards you or others in your team e.g. negative or abusive comments, bullying or discrimination?'

The affair prompted an overhaul of England's Para-football environment, led by former British Para-swimming executive Catherine Gilby. Gilby, now the FA's Head of Para Performance, believes that the progress hinted at by Barker is palpable.

"There's been a real step change towards a person-centred approach," she said.

"We've really instilled within our staff and players that we want a more open, safe environment for people to be able to say, 'I'm not having a good time at the moment, I'd really like to be able to talk about it' and maybe access some support."

Gilby namechecks a number of initiatives, from a player representative group bringing together individuals from different impairment groups, to 'multi-squad' camps pitting teams from different Para categories - such as the cerebral palsy and deaf sides - against each other.

While the measures have helped engender a different environment to the one which Crossen first encountered, the England captain also points to the importance of an established backroom team who have helped him since that first nerve-shredding training session.

"They're the best I've ever worked with because of what they've done, where they've personally got me and where I know they've got the other players as well," he said, describing the work of Barker and his colleagues.

"They're just there as sort of a safety blanket for you when you're away, if you're homesick or you're not feeling great and need a pick me up."

Barker's support was in evidence during England's campaign in Sicily this summer. Carefully prepared highlight reels were produced to boost players' confidence, with voice notes - affirming positive messages developed in collaboration with squad members - sent to individuals before important games.

Although the journey ended in disappointment - Crossen and his team lost 3-0 in the final against Ukraine, ranked first in the latest cerebral palsy international standings - the England captain is still grateful to be playing international football, 10 years on from the ordeal which almost put paid to his chances of ever stepping foot on a pitch again.

"It's mostly when I'm away with England and I think, 'if I didn't have my stroke, would I be playing for England? Would I have had the opportunity?' I don't think I would have," he said.

"When I suffered my stroke, I mentally made an agreement with myself that I'd probably lost the killer 15% of my football, which set me apart from other players that I played with and got me on the scope of clubs.

"Then when I was training with England, it was bittersweet because I was thinking, 'I've lost that, but look what I've gained'.

"And that was my attitude towards it: I knew I'd lost something that I would never, ever be able to get back or replace, but I just thought I'll work with what I've got left.

"That's what I pass on to young players who have got cerebral palsy or who have had a stroke or any sort of head injury.

"I just tell them work with what you've got, because if I can improve to where I've got to, some 18-year-old player who's got more talent than me can certainly do it."

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