Claire Stancliffe: England Deaf Football captain on journey to World Championships

Photo credit: Gemma Newson Photography

“I feel like I’ve gone from a really accessible world back into a society that doesn’t accept me or adapt for me.” Last month, Claire Stancliffe and the England Women’s Deaf Football team flew back home and back into reality after competing at the World Deaf Football Championships in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The tournament marked competition between the world’s best deaf football teams, and also provided something else for Stancliffe and her teammates. It was an escape from the reality of a society that fails to accommodate for the needs of deaf people.

“I’ve gone three weeks where I’ve got interpreters available for me and everyone’s willing to communicate with each other. Then coming back home, I haven’t got a clue what’s going on,” she reflects. “I think that’s a really special part of the deaf football team for me.”

“Playing football was just me being seen as normal”

For Stancliffe, football has always helped provide a bubble where, for a time, her deafness did not impact her.

“Being able to watch football on the TV didn’t require subtitles, so it was the one thing as a child that I could watch and understand,” she explains. “It’s a bit like Tom and Jerry, there’s no need for sound, it’s just visual.

“Playing football was just me being seen as normal. I didn’t know how deaf I was, I was around hearing people most of my life.”

Claire Stancliffe captain’s England Women’s Deaf Football side. Photo credit: Gemma Newson Photography

The England captain was 18 when she met another deaf person for the first time in her life. This also happened to be when she found out about deaf football. Travelling to Derby for a five-a-side tournament, it was there that Stancliffe was scouted by the England Deaf Football team manager.

Since then, deaf football has offered Stancliffe an escape into a “totally different world.” But, back in April, that world would be put under threat.

“It just felt like this isn’t fair”

Just six months before the World Championships, it looked as though the tournament might never happen for England. The FA announced they would no longer be funding the team despite the men’s team retaining their backing.

“When we found out, it just felt like this isn’t fair,” says Stancliffe. “We’ve been training for the last five years for this and to have it ripped away is a tough one to take.

“Especially with women’s football taking off at the moment, it felt like we made these massive leaps forwards and then we just went 10 steps backwards.”

Fortuitously, Stancliffe was on a career break and thus decided to commit to campaigning for fundraising and sponsorship as though it were a full-time job.

She set up a fundraising page that would attract donations from the likes of Gary Neville, Gary Lineker and Steven Gerrard. Yet, it would be the influence of GoFundMe organiser, Simon Harris, that would turn their efforts into a social media phenomenon.

Harris’ posts received millions of views and support from across the football community and beyond, enabling the England Women’s Deaf Football team to hit their goal.

“It was just so nice to see that people believed in us,” says Stancliffe. “They genuinely believe that we have a right to represent our country.”

So, with many players having to take unpaid leave to get the tournament, the team hit the target and flew to Malaysia to compete at the World Championships.

“That was the dream, and it came true”

“Everyone was buzzing,” Stancliffe recalls. “There was so much that we were given, and it is probably never going to happen again. Everyone was just really on a high.”

For the England skipper, having fought so hard to even be there, being able to walk out in an England kit they had designed themselves, was an achievement in itself.

“That was the dream, and it came true,” says Stancliffe. “I think every footballer’s dream is to play for their country and the feeling never changes. It’s still as special as that very first time. To be captain was a huge honour.”

The England Women’s Deaf Football side’s Starting XI. Photo Credit: Gemma Newson Photography

The team’s inclusivity was exemplified when they lined up pre-match and signed the national anthem together. It was a memorable moment with a particular poignancy, in a song so often imbued with national identity, the players were able to reflect their own identity.

“That was brilliant. Before we went out, I suggested that we learn it because it would be a special moment,” says Stancliffe. “Not all our players sign and it’s a moment where we can show how we adapt and communicate and push to make sure that everyone’s included.”

England finished fourth in the tournament, below their initial hopes, but impressive nonetheless for a team who just six months before were not even sure if they could make the tournament.

For Stancliffe, however, the World Championships only marked the start of something bigger. With the Deaf Olympics on the horizon in 2025, there remains work to be done.

“I want the team to be sustainable”

“We need more resources,” asserts Stancliffe. “We needed a team doctor because for some of the tournament we had half a team that were unwell. Not having a medical expert to help us with that wasn’t the best thing.

“America and Poland are fully funded. They’re playing five times a week and we don’t have the facilities to do that here. What can we do as individuals away from camp to make sure that we’re able to compete at that level?

“I want the team to be sustainable. I want us to be fully funded so the players don’t have to worry about anything other than their football. The dream is for them to be paid.”

Captain Claire Stancliffe of England Women’s Deaf Football with Japan captain Miwa Ito. Photo credit: Gemma Newson Photography

Despite the depth of public support evident in their fundraising efforts, the England Women’s Deaf Football team are still left without vital visibility. They remain without concrete assurances of sponsorship and media recognition.

“We need to make people aware of who we are”

“It’s the lack of awareness because we’re not out there in the mainstream media,” Stancliffe says. “The government don’t recognise deaf athletes, so we don’t get the publicity and the funding that Olympians and Paralympians do.

“We need to make people aware of who we are and what we do because there are people out there that possibly could play for us but don’t know about us.

“We need someone dedicated to making it sustainable. It’s a long-term thing, I don’t want this to just be a one off. It’s got to be for the next 10-20 years.”

The tournament provided a taste of a truly accessible world and elite sport for Stancliffe and the squad, but they should not have to wait for the next tournament to come round.

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