The England Women’s Deaf football team need to raise an initial £50,000 by the end of June to book flights to and accommodation for the 2023 World Cup.
Pictures courtesy of @clairestancliffe
“Until I was about 18 I thought I was the only deaf person in the world,” Claire Stancliffe tells the Women’s Sports Alliance. “Joining the England Deaf Women’s football team was life changing.”
She “fell in love” with football – thanks in no small part to her “Liverpool mad” football family – around the age of four-and-a-half.
It was also around that time she began to have difficulties with her hearing and while there was certainly no medical link between the two occurrences, many years on Claire now fully understands why she was so drawn to the sport.
“When it came to TV, subtitles weren't a big thing back then, so watching a programme was no good to me,” she recalls. “But football was great!
“You didn't need to understand what was being said to understand what was going on.”
At that age and for much of her childhood Claire admits she was rather “blasé” about her impairment, essentially in her “own bubble” most of the time, but there were still challenges.
“Back then it was more of a case of I was female playing a men’s sport,” she says. “That's what we faced back then.”
TIMES HAVE CHANGED, BUT SO HAVE THE CHALLENGES
The defender admits those “out-dated” perceptions have now finally begun to be banished; however, other trials have emerged.
Those included a “greater awareness” of the wider impact a hearing impairment was having on her life.
“It's really weird because I don't think, when I was younger, I actually understood that I was deaf,” she tells the WSA. “People initially didn’t even know I was deaf, but as you get older, that's when you start becoming a bit more insecure.
“I couldn’t hear the whistle, then maybe once I became a teenager, I began to lose confidence when people made comments and that's when I kind of realised how much I missed out on.”
“I always describe being deaf as like you're in a foreign country and you're surrounded by people talking a completely different language,” Claire continues.
“You can understand just tiny bits of it and you can piece it together, but it takes a lot of work and that's my life 24/7.”
A “LIFE CHANGING MOMENT” IN 2007
At a time when her hearing was rapidly diminishing further, Claire discovered she had been scouted by staff working for the England Women’s Deaf football team.
She made her international debut the following year, aged 18, in a World Cup warm-up match ahead of the tournament where they claimed bronze.
“Previously (in the dressing room) I couldn’t understand what was going with the banter so it looked like I was really boring and just sat there on my own,” Claire recalls.
“Now when I go to an England or a GB Deaf football squad where we all use sign language I'm full of life and I'm a different person.”
Over the last 16 years she has gone on to become one of the most decorated in the history of the sport with 60 appearances for England & GB combined as well as honours at two World Cups, the Deaflympics and European Championships.
It has been a journey she describes as “incredible” but also often “frustrating.”
FROM UNFUNDED TO FUNDED, THEN RELUCTANTLY GOING SOLO AGAIN
Unlike British Olympic and Paralympic athletes Deaflympians do not receive any funding from UK Sport and while that could potentially change in the future, they are currently without any major source of income for the 2023 World Cup in Malaysia.
Last year Claire was among a group of players to hail the FA’s new investment in the team which had seen them secure monthly training sessions at St George’s Park.
They had previous relied on generous donations from the likes of former England players Gary Neville and Jack Butland to attend past major competitions, but backing from the Football Association gave them renewed hope for a bright future.
The FA’s recent decision to end that investment and instead target resources towards the futsal format of the sport came as a “massive shock.”
“Especially with the Lionesses’ success last year, I thought, ‘things are going to go really well to the women's game’ but yeah, it’s the decision they’ve made,” she reluctantly admits.
“Futsal is not for everyone and now you're gonna have players out there that don't play futsal, or don't want to,” she says.
“I think it's a real shame not to have a deaf football team for those players.”
WELCOME FUNDING SUPPORT FROM UNLIKELY SOURCES
With six weeks to go until their initial deadline they have raised around £15,000 of the £50,000 target, thanks in no small part to £5k donations from former England internationals Gary Neville and Steven Gerrard.
“Gary’s support is great because we’ve never directly asked for donations from him, so the fact that he’s just done that is great,” she says.
“Everyone knows Steven Gerard is my hero, so getting his donation was pretty, pretty special as well!”
Claire’s mission – and that of the team – goes beyond just reaching this year’s World Cup though.
In two year’s time there will be another edition of the Deaflympics and she is all-too aware of just how much of a “life changing” difference accessibility to sports, for those with hearing impairments, can make.
‘WE WANT TO WIN THE WORLD CUP, FOR US AND THE NEXT GENERATION’
“The whole reason we're doing it (fundraising) is to just to keep that pathway going,” the England and Great Britain defender tells the WSA.
“Having a disability, it can be quite lonely sometimes and people don't necessarily understand it because they've never been though it themselves.
“I feel like the future generation they need this (fundraising) to happen, so they've got something to aim for.
“As a child, I didn't have that and I think that would have completely changed my life and my outlook on life at a very early age if I had.
“It would mean everything to get there, for us, as well as future generations and of course if we do, we’ll go there to compete and try to win.”