As Matt Crossen started to recover from a stroke aged 23, he set himself the challenge to return to competitive football. The sport had been his life until he was hospitalised – and he was determined it would remain so afterwards.
So Matt began plotting his return to the turf and was soon playing semi-professionally again. His left side had been permanently damaged, however, with a constant pins and needles sensation, and the long-term effects of his stroke posed a challenge. But they also opened a new door: the England Para Lions, a collection of teams at international level whose players have various disabilities.
“After a month or two in hospital the ball got rolling regarding heading into the para setup. I trained every other camp,” he tells the BEAA. “Then in 2015 I got my call-up for my first tournament.
“As soon as my stroke happened I was motivated to get back into football. I didn’t see it as an issue, I just thought: ‘Oh right, okay. I’ve had this but it’s all right.’ I made a deal with myself that I knew I’d lost a part of me that made me a lot better as a player. But I thought I’d excuse that as long as I could get back into football.
“It was difficult but little things, taking each day as it comes, and little victories, is how I manage to pull through.”
After three years with England Matt was named captain of the Cerebral Palsy squad, which also contains players with brain injuries and the side effects of strokes.
But he hasn’t stopped there. Recently, he applied to become one of the Para Lions’ Athlete Representatives, a role facilitated through recruitment and training by the BEAA.
He explains what being an Athlete Rep means: “It’s a voice for players within my team,” he says. “We take things back to our teams to speak about and get them on board. It keeps us all involved so we know what’s going on. That was the main focus for me, to make sure I’m there for everybody. From the loudest player in the team to the quietest player in the team, they all have a voice.
“I think it’s always good to have those at the top, the elite, who can’t get any higher, to have their opinion. It gives players a voice.”
So far para football’s Athlete Rep group have raised their desire to begin a capping system to recognise players after their international retirement, and Matt hopes that more player-centred initiatives will follow. For any athletes looking to become a representative in their own sport, he says: “Anyone can do it; if I can, it’s proof anyone can.”
But the country’s para footballers are also able to access the BEAA’s independent and expert support, with a dedicated Athlete Support Manager on hand to provide confidential advice and guidance.
“In an ideal world you hope – not in a horrible way – that players never need to speak to anyone because they’re always happy,” Matt says. “But you can’t stop these things and unfortunately they happen. I’ve had it myself and know other players who’ve gone through it. It’s nice to know that at this level you’ve got someone you can speak to.
“I know when I was coming up at 23/24 I’d have loved something like this because it would have been good to get a bit of guidance. We never really had it. Going forward it’s something the lads in our team will do. At the minute, with life getting on top of you, football is a release. I think if things do just cross over slightly into the world of your release it can feel like they get on top of you and it’s good to speak to someone. The role you play is massive.
“If you’ve got someone who can speak to you and give you a bit of guidance, it’s invaluable. I’ve seen it first hand.
“The last year I’ve been running on empty because my grandad passed away. He was the main figurehead of not only my family but my football and my life. It was unfortunate that it happened around a lot of camps coming up and the Euros coming up.
“I just had to take it on the chin. I grew up with him saying: ‘That’s life, you get on with it,’ and I incorporated that. But it was good to be able to release to certain people and you feel so much better. I’ve spoken to the lads about my experience; it’s something you can pass down and say: ‘Look, it works – trust me.’”
If you or your elite sport want to set up Athlete Representatives, please get in touch.