Mark Thomas, social inclusion lead at Oxford United in the Community, reflects on United’s first home disability game – and how the first team made it a week to remember.

One aspect of football we often discuss in the community hub of Oxford United’s operation is how powerful the badge of any professional or semi-professional club in any sport can be.

The presence of a club crest can bring out the best in people, and prompt them to make positive changes to their lives by taking on new challenges, learning skills and developing self-confidence.

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At Oxford United in the Community, we see this positive impact every day – be it through our half-term holiday camps which operated last week, our work in partnership with HMP Bullingdon and the Twinning Project or monthly Manor Club for the Over 50s events.

One tangible example of this power translating to participants took place quite literally a stone’s throw from the training headquarters of Des Buckingham’s first team when we organised the first home fixture for United’s disability football team.

It was a friendly tie against Northampton, which followed a very special pre-match session delivered to replicate the training and day-to-day experiences of the first team squad.

Des generously gave up his time to voice his pre-match team talk while players conducted media interviews to local outlets and practised their techniques on the 3G training pitches.

Results on the day were secondary, although both teams produced some outstanding goals and defensive performances which certainly caught Des’ attention, who was pitch side to watch the matches.

Oxford Mail: A player at Oxford United in the CommunityPersonally, having led our disability football sessions since they launched in January 2023, three elements stood out to me most.

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The first being personal development, and how players have improved skills which can be applied on the pitch such as agility, balance and coordination – things which are easy to take for granted.

Secondly, teamwork and communication. Joining a new club and meeting individuals you’ve never encountered can be daunting for some.

But it is with no hesitation the way our disability squad has bonded and grown stronger as each week has passed and the change in players’ confidence is really noticeable.

Lastly, the spirit and emotion of playing.

At full-time I believe all players realised the aforementioned improvements that had been made both on and off pitch and were able to reflect on our first year together as a team with great pride.

Oxford Mail: Oxford United in the CommunityNone of the above would have been possible without the support of our key partners Abingdon and Witney College, who have been instrumental in the programme’s success.

Accessing appropriate provisions is not easy for sports enthusiasts who live with a disability, with travel, cost, access to care and equipment all acting as potential barriers.

We’re therefore grateful to Lee Humber and his team for their support in delivering the programme.

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It was unfortunate on the day of our disability football fixture that United’s League One match against Northampton Town scheduled for the afternoon had been called off due to a frozen pitch.

Between ourselves and the club, we had organised a special afternoon for players from both clubs to provide those extra positive experiences our charity strives to achieve.

It goes to show what’s possible when adopting a ‘one club’ approach which prioritises equality and enjoyment for everyone connected to the United badge, regardless of how big or small their role might be.

Mark Thomas, social inclusion lead for Oxford United in the Community

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About the author 

Andy is the Trade and Tourism reporter for the Oxford Mail and you can sign up to his newsletters for free here. 

He joined the team more than 20 years ago and he covers community news across Oxfordshire.

His Trade and Tourism newsletter is released every Saturday morning. 

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