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England Deaf Football’s Cavell Donaldson on the European Championships you haven’t heard of

England opened their European Championships campaign with a win and a clean sheet. A success that sounds familiar, but it does not belong to who you think.

Back in May, before Jude Bellingham had even secured his place on the plane to Germany, Cavell Donaldson had provided England Men’s Deaf Football team with a first-half advantage in their opener in Turkey. In fact, Donaldson went one better, contributing a brace to a resounding 4-0 defeat of Wales.

Yet, comparatively few people even knew that the European Deaf Football Championships was taking place.

Cavell Donaldson of England runs after a ball in white England kit with dark blue shorts.
ANTALYA, TURKEY – MAY 20: Cavell Donaldson of England runs with the ball during the European Deaf Football Championship match between England and Wales at Castila Luxury resort on May 20, 2024 in Antalya, Turkey. (Photo by Ahmad Mora – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

“A lot of deaf players don’t know about it, and that included myself,” says Para Lions midfielder Donaldson.

“[Visibility is important because] nowadays, everyone’s got social media and they’re on it every day, so if they see deaf football or England, they’re like, ‘Wow, I want to be involved. I’ll tell my family, I’ll tell the next person.’

“We just want to broadcast it and then [people can] get involved with it. The more people you get, the more competitive deaf football gets.”

It was social media, in fact, that alerted Donaldson to the existence of deaf football.

“I saw Jamie Clark, the England captain, wearing an implant on Instagram and I thought that’s strange because it’s a similar disability. I wear a hearing aid and he wears an implant, so I messaged him and it went from there,” recalls Donaldson.

To be eligible to compete in Deaf Football competitions, ‘players must have a hearing loss of 55 decibels (dB) per tone average in their better ear.’

Donaldson, who also represents Farsley Celtic Deaf FC, was duly selected for England following trials. Soon he would be on the plane to Malaysia for the World Championships in October 2023.

“[Pulling on an England shirt for the first time] was a dream come true. You can’t get any better than that,” Donaldson smiles.

Cavell Donaldson of England Deaf Football team celebrates to the camera wearing number 14 white England shirt.
Photo by Ahmad Mora – The FA/The FA via Getty Images

England bowed out in the round of 16 following a narrow 1-0 defeat to the USA. This summer’s European Championships, however, provided an opportunity to put things right. With four wins from four in the group stages, the Para Lions looked on course to make amends.

“We went to win the tournament. I feel like we are more than capable of winning, it’s just showing that we can do it,” says the England midfielder. “We’ve got enough talent, good relationships and we’ve had enough camp. There’s no excuse, we just have to show it.”

But, facing a draw against the hosts in the quarter-finals, the Para Lions were once more defeated in the knockouts, losing 2-0 to Turkey.

Wins against Poland and Germany to work out placing saw England finish fifth overall. It was an uplifting end to a disappointing tournament for the Para Lions who ultimately fell short of their aim of gold.

The England Deaf Football team at the European Championships in Turkey.
Photo by Ahmad Mora – The FA/The FA via Getty Images

But had Donaldson not happened upon one Instagram post there was no guarantee he would be representing England at all.

The now Farsley Celtic DFC player first started playing in a hearing environment at local club Road Hill Junior. He continued throughout school and college before joining non-league New Mills, who currently compete in North West Counties Division One South.

Having grown used to a hearing environment, the transition to playing deaf football came with challenges of its own.

“It was strange for a long time,” Donaldson reflects. “It was a lot quieter in the deaf environment. People could do a lot of BSL, but I knew nothing about sign language.

“I was trying to pick out the right people and work out how to speak to them because there were a lot of people signing, a lot of people speaking, and a lot of people who didn’t speak at all.”

After a couple of years, however, Donaldson came to understand the impact such an accessible environment can have.

“In a hearing environment, you miss out on the communication and the banter of the team. You’re not as close with hearing people,” he says.

“You don’t miss information in the deaf world because they make sure that you know what you’re doing and what the plan is. In the hearing world, you might miss out because they’re talking too fast and it’s a loud environment.”

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While one in three adults in the UK are deaf, have hearing loss or tinnitus, an unwillingness by society to provide accessibility in this way means that ‘hearing loss doubles the risk of developing depression and increases the risk of anxiety’.

“I realise that if I don’t have a hearing aid then I struggle a lot,” Donaldson says. “Sometimes, I feel quite low and anxious. It’s a struggle every day.”

However, football and the England pathway have given Donaldson an escape from the challenges of day-to-day life.

“We are on a good pathway. Without England, I wouldn’t be as dedicated to football and as motivated to look after myself as I am now,” he says.

“You forget about everything when you step on the pitch. You just want to try your best to win for the team. Every day I think about football, I watch football, I talk about football.

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Deaf football still faces challenges, with diminishing competition in the domestic league owing to the need for more players and better finances. But Donaldson is determined to keep improving.

“I’d say never give up. In Malaysia, I was on the bench quite a few times and I said to myself I should be starting. Now I’m starting,” he emphasises.

“As the years get on, there are new things in the world you can get involved with, so don’t give up.”

Despite the recent European Championship disappointment, Donaldson will heed his own advice. After all, he has an EDF Challenge Cup title to defend with Farsley Celtic DFC this weekend.

Author

  • Laura Howard

    Laura is a sports journalist with specialisms in football, hockey and cricket and has bylines in The Hockey Paper and The Non-League Paper. Her work often explores the intersection of sport and social issues with a particular interest in disability and women’s sport. Laura is also a recipient of the NCTJ Journalism Diversity Fund.