Image courtesy of the International Paralympic committee
Dan English has been part of the England blind soccer squad for over 8 years and he’s now a central figure in the team, but his rise to the top hasn’t been easy.
He talks to Goalfix about the sacrifices he’s made, what young players need to do to make it in the sport and more…
Listen to the full 30 minute interview with Dan, or carry on reading for a text version
Talking to Dan, it doesn’t take long to realize how single minded he is.
It’s this focus that’s got him to the top of his chosen sport, and you can imagine that whichever sport he’d chosen he’d be playing at an elite level.
When he was first introduced to blind soccer Dan was competing at a national level as a swimmer, but a lifelong Sunderland fan, the possibility of playing soccer (‘football‘ as it is known in the UK) at elite level was too much and it took little persuasion for him to switch sports.
“I used to swim competitively at a decent level. I even broke a couple of European and world records,” he tells me almost as an aside. “It wasn’t until he went to Loughborough College that he found out that playing blind football was an option.”
The then England manager John Ball visited the university to give a talk on the sport and Dan went along to listen.
“I was interested and got invited to some trails. I was always a Sunderland Fan but I didn’t ever dream of playing the sport. I didn’t know anything about it. The plan was to be a swimmer. But when I had the opportunity to play football, I just knew I couldn’t turn it down.”
Once on the path he set his aim high. He remembers a couple of pivotal moments in his rise to the top.
“Dave Clark was the captain when I first started, and I remember just one point going, I’m gonna take your armband off you. I want to make sure I’m the captain.”
Eight years later and he’s reached his goal. You get the impression that what ever he sets his mind on he has a good chance of achieving it, but that’s not to say he’s had it all his own way.
“I missed out on Beijing, I was not going to miss another opportunity to go the Paralympics, and I progressed and worked hard.”
More recently the team failed to qualify for Tokyo 2020 . “It was devastating not to qualify” he told me, but he’s using it as a learning experience and there were plenty of takeaways.
“We need to be more versatile going forward and more threatening in front of goal. I think we need to be a lot more clinical with penalties and opportunities that arise. Because penalties and other dead ball situations are so critical in our game.”
For every challenging moment along his journey there has certainly be a high to match. He sites his first game for England as a high point, alongside scoring against China in 2012 (a team he describes as the best in the world).
He’s as modest as he is driven and he puts these highlights down to the team around him as much as his own skill and determination.
“It’s because the support around me and the team work around me allows me to be the player that I am.”
Despite his modesty he has scored some brilliant solo efforts.
The best of the bunch was against France in Berlin 2017. Beating two players before rifling it into the net.
He remembers the moment well. “I don’t think we’ve never scored a goal that quick before, it was after 31 or 32 seconds. And the recognition I got was just amazing. I think it really promoted the game, I think give the team a boost. It gave us motivation to go and take the opportunities that come afterwards.”
Getting to the top
Getting to the top of his game hasn’t been easy, his single mindedness has come at a cost. Dan lives in Hereford where the national team is based and trains however his family, including his young son, still live in the North East.
“I moved to Hereford in 2009 to go to the soccer academy for a year while studying. And the majority of my career has been based here. My little boy, he lives in Durham, so I have to travel back every week, six hours on a train to see him and so I’ve sacrificed being close to him if he ever gets ill or there is ever an emergency.”
This sacrifice also extends to his beloved Sunderland.
“I used to go with family to the games. I subscribe to the audio commentary to listen to them.”
And the documentary on Netflix? Well, he started watching it… “but haven’t finished it yet. I can’t I can’t bear to watch.”
But these are sacrifices that he’s willing to make to continue to play at this level.
“That’s something I’ve dealt with. Holidays, birthdays, things like family events, all that kind of thing, I think is natural for an elite athlete to miss.”
What it takes to be an elite blind athlete
So what more does it take to be a blind athlete beyond what is expected of sighted players?
For Dan a big part is the ability to handle their disability in day to day life.
“One thing that can really highlight whether a player is going to be good or not, is their independence levels and their ability and willingness to go out there and actually move around without being mollycoddled.”
The best payers he says will be those that use their sticks and guide dogs to get around rather than relying on other people, and that these life skills transfer well into the game.
That’s not to say that support from staff and coaches isn’t important, but this has to be on your own terms says English.
If the support isn’t quite right blind athletes have to communicate what it is they need. You need to demand that support, he says, adding “I think that’s right across any part of a blind person’s life.”
His ethos is one of hard work.
“A big thing is making sure you’re hungry for it. It’s about working for what you want.”
He juggles a tough training schedule with university and family life when he can.
For him this hard work is now all about maintaining standards.
“If I can live with high standards, and get everyone else to the high standards, at some point we will win something.”
He maintains these standards by continually trying to develop as a player.
“The team around you is constantly learning and evolving. I think that change of personnel means you’ve got to continue to learn because not everybody’s going to come in and fit with who you are and how you are.
I think as your role in the squad changes from being inexperienced to a senior player, demands on you then change. And you need to learn how to handle every kind of team member to ensure that they are at their best as well.”
He’s also helped to develop the game alongside Goalfix.
“From a blind football perspective, to be able to work with Russell on what we want the ball to be like and how it should be how to feel is a great achievement. Also to get the mask right, is incredible, because we can then get that standardized across the world and ensure that the games are fair.”
His role as captain
Now he’s captain he also has a part to play in supporting others and he tries to work with players to keep them on the right path.
“As a captain, for me, it’s more than just putting an arm around them and saying come on, you got to do this, or don’t worry about that.”
He feels it’s about keeping players “concentrating on moving forward. Because at times you’re going to have different pressures trying to make them move away from the game, whether it’s they’re a teenager and they’ve got mates, or they’ve got the studies, we needed to try and help them get a good balance.”
And his advice for young players who have ambitions of playing at the highest level?
“You need to be hungry. Don’t be satisfied with anything less than the best. You need to look at somebody who’s a standout player and want to go knock them off their pedestal. And I think you need to keep reflecting on that all the way through and until you’ve done that. So work hard, drive hard and don’t let anyone put you off.”
Our thanks to Dan for taking the time to talk to us.
Goalfix supplies a range of top quality blind soccer equipment for players, teams and tournaments.
New to blind soccer? Read our introduction to the sport of blind soccer