Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson took advantage of the Premier League’s international break to lead training for the club’s Down’s Syndrome team.
The ex England boss surprised the delighted players – aged between eight and 24 – who play for the team run by the Palace for Life Foundation, when he arrived at the Monks Hill Sports Centre in south Croydon.
Roy, who first met the players back in September at a Foundation event, said: “This group are just fantastic, their enthusiasm, their humanity and their affection, it’s very difficult not to enjoy their company. When I was asked to come here tonight, I was more than happy and it’s great to see them all again.
“Our Foundation does a wonderful job, and you can see how much the children enjoy it and how good the coaches are with the young players, so it’s 100% positive.
“It’s not just about coaching, it’s about enjoyment, pure and simple. The main thing is that they go home each week having really enjoyed it, having had fun and a lot of encouragement and positivity.”
The DS Eagles team has been together for five years, training weekly and taking part in friendly matches and tournaments against other clubs. Sessions are based around football skills and small matches, but are also vital in helping players to develop their social and communication skills, as well as motor skills such as agility and co-ordination.
Roy continued: “Sometimes when you’re working at the top level, you forget the real basics of what football means to people, we get caught up in the winning and the losing and the hype around the professional game, but really football is this, it’s people coming out with their children on a cold autumn night and watching them enjoy themselves, with no worries about anything other than that.”
Palace for Life Foundation’s Disability Manager Michael Harrington added: “The young people who come here want to play football and they don’t always have the opportunity to do that in mainstream teams. Here they are welcome straight away.
“For these players to represent Palace is such an incredible thing for them. To know that Roy and the Palace players have come down just to see them is a very special feeling.
“You can see how this has become a community, we have parents, carers, brothers and sisters who come down every week and join in and are all very much a part of this, they’re lifelong friends - the players and the parents!”