The blind goalkeeper determined to get children into football

The blind goalkeeper determined to get children into football
Chloe McBratney and Joe Ralls, the Cardiff City captain – and Emily the guide dog – in front of a mural celebrating her work

If you are heading through the centre of Cardiff over the next couple of months, it will be impossible to miss Chloe McBratney. Because there she is, or rather there is an image of her 30 foot high, on a mural celebrating her work for the Cardiff City Community Trust. It shows her and her guide dog Emily alongside a scene of a bunch of youngsters playing football in the school yard. Look closely at the picture and it soon becomes obvious that one of the players has an artificial leg. “More than a Game” is the caption.

Since it appeared on a wall just outside the Principality Stadium earlier this month, thousands will have already seen the picture. And according to the Cardiff City captain Joe Ralls, it is appropriate that they will have done.

“I draw such inspiration from her,” he says, as he stands alongside Chloe in front of the mural on the day it is revealed. “She deserves the world to know about her and what she does.”

And indeed, Chloe’s story is remarkable. She was born without any sight whatsoever. Her parents were told to resign themselves to the fact she would never be able to see anything. But after about 18 months, she began to develop limited sight. And what she mainly saw was a football; she became obsessed with the game. From the age of six she was playing regularly for her local youth team. As a goalkeeper.

“I know, I know, with limited sight I really should have been a referee,” she smiles, as she talks to Telegraph Sport with the huge picture of herself looming over her shoulder. “But though my sight was limited, my hearing was really heightened. I promise you I could hear the ball coming through the air, I knew where it was and where it was going to go.”

So adept was she at sensing the ball heading her way that, at the age of 13, she gained a place in the Cardiff City Academy. But soon after joining the club’s girls’ set-up her already limited eyesight began to deteriorate. Now, in her twenties, she can see nothing through her right eye and has only 30 per cent vision in her left.

“I’ve got no depth perception, everything’s blurry,” she explains. “And the condition I’ve got means it’s getting worse. I will eventually have no sight at all.”

That, however, has not stopped her involvement in the game. Although she was no longer able to keep goal for the Cardiff girls’ team, at university she took up coaching disability football. And after graduating, she learned of a position with the Cardiff City Community Trust.

“Trouble was the advert said you needed a driving licence,” she says. “Which was obviously not something I had.”

But obstacles have never proven much of a barrier in Chloe’s life. And using her well-honed power of persuasion, she managed to convince the Trust she didn’t need to drive. They took her on in a role using the game to help pupils with their numeracy and literacy.

“When I started, the scheme didn’t go into SEN [special educational needs] schools. But thanks to Premier League funding and the Primary Stars programme, I’m now out there working in six schools across Cardiff, getting disability football going, using it as a lead for social action projects.”

‘[Emily the dog] loves going to a match – she’s really fond of Bartley Bluebird the mascot’

And when she arrives at the schools, she is invariably accompanied by Emily, her guide dog.

“Actually, she’s allowed me to shape the programme,” Chloe says of her dog, who sits quietly alongside her as she speaks. “She’s become an unofficial therapy dog for the pupils. They pet her, they play with her, they have conversations with her, which I admit are a bit one-sided. For children who are non-verbal, though, she’s a real avenue for them to have dog therapy. That’s why when they told me they were going to do a mural of me I said: can she be on it as well?”

Every home game Chloe and Emily will accompany a group of her SEN pupils to the Cardiff City Stadium.

“The first place I took her when I got her was to the stadium,” says Chloe of her companion. “She loves going to a match. She’s really fond of Bartley Bluebird the mascot. Loves him. She feels very comfortable there. In fact, she’ll fall asleep and snore through the game.”

This is an observation which amuses Ralls somewhat.

“So do a lot of fans, to be fair,” he grins.

But this is the point about Chloe: using football as a device, the woman who played the game to a high level despite her lack of sight is making a difference in the lives of dozens of young people in Cardiff. Not least through her insistence that they should not allow their condition to hold them back from doing anything.

“When I was young I didn’t really have a role model,” she says. “I suppose when I was told I couldn’t do something, I wanted to prove whoever told me that wrong. Yes I have things going on, but it’s not going to stop me.”

On the mural celebrating her achievements is written the line: “disability doesn’t define my ability.”

As a statement of her intent it could not be more appropriate.

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