As a young boy Sohail Rehman loved to play football with his friends.
Like most boys his ages he one day dreamt of emulating his hero David Beckham. Although Sohail knew he was different because he walked on his tip toes, it never slowed him down or gave him any cause to think he couldn’t fulfil his dreams.
Sohail suffers from a disability called spinal muscular atrophy.
In general, SMA affects a person’s physical abilities, such as moving, walking and breathing. It causes the muscles throughout the body to become weak and shrink.
Despite his disability, up until the age of 13 he did manage to play the game he loved with friends in the street and even a local team. But then came the moment that Sohail describes as “the worst conversation” of his life.
“The doctors told me that my disability had got to a point where I would become wheelchair bound within two years. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I knew I was different but it had never stopped me doing anything until then.”
Sohail found it hard to come to terms with this news.
“This was the worst moment in my life” he says. “It was a real kick in the teeth. As a youngster you set yourself the goals you want to achieve when you are older. Suddenly all my goals were taken from me and I had to find new ones,” says Sohail, now 21. He found it hard trying to face the fact that he could never play the sport he loved and admits that he had some very low moments.
It wasn’t helped when he was barred from getting involved with school sport.
“I was no longer part of a team. They said I couldn’t take part and instead told me to get on with some so work. I might not have been able to play, but I could have done something so that I could have been involved, but I was the only kid in a wheelchair at our school and I don’t think they really knew what to do with me. I feel every young kid deserves the chance to chase his dreams of becoming a footballer or whatever he wants to do,” says Sohail. But it wasn’t until he started college that he realised there was a way of realising his ambition, at least in part.
“I was doing A Level IT at Leeds City College when I got talking to one of the sports teachers about football. They asked if I knew so much, why wasn’t taking one of their courses? After what I’d experienced at school I told him I wasn’t allowed, he was incredulous. He said he was running a six-week course and I should give it a go.”
Sohail never looked back, he was encouraged to go on a football coaching course.
Sohail decided he was going to break down barriers and overcome obstacles in his way.
This inspirational young man from Keighley decided that even if he couldn’t play the game he loved, he could use his knowledge to coach others,
So at the age of 16 he started to take his coaching badges.
After taking his level 1 and 2 he started coaching a local club’s under 10 team.
“I was worried that players would look at me and say ‘how can he coach when he can’t play?’.
And there was a moment when an eight-year-old called Callum Davis, asked Sohail: “Coach, don’t you ever feel like kicking the ball?”
Sohail replied: “You always have to be grateful for what you have. Just think I might not be able to kick the ball but at least I can see the ball, somewhere in the world there is probably someone who wishes he could see the ball or someone who wishes he could hear his team mates when playing, always remember somewhere out there, there’s someone who struggles more then you, so always be grateful.”
Sohail got a voluntary coaching role with a disabled sports and leisure club, and later started coaching football in Keighley with some learning support children.
“I did that for six weeks and I found it very easy,” he said. “I thought I could get my message across well. After that I decided to do levels two and three.”
He completed them and took up a voluntary role at Oakwood Juniors.
Now, believed to be the world’s first fully qualified disabled football coach, Sohail is helping others achieve their dreams.
Last year he set up Class on Grass, an organisation aimed to help children enjoy sport. Class on Grass aims to get children and their parents off the couch and into sport, using a style of fun, friendly, focused, skills-based coaching.
“Our goal is to introduce children to sport through football using our unique, fun-learning techniques developing real football and other sports skills in a safe and creative environment that benefits every child,” says Sohail.
On Sunday Sohail hosted a football tournament at Soccer City Leeds, also known as Sport In The City. Guests included Leeds United striker Ross McCormack.
“It was amazing to have the Leeds players there. They were really supportive and asked me lots of questions about how I coach. I explained that I don’t need to show players how it’s done when I can explain it.”
Sohail’s dream is, like any football coach, to one day become a Football League coach and his dream recently got a boost from none other than Sir Alex Ferguson,
The letter from Fergie read: “Dear Sohail, I am writing to congratulate you on passing your coaching badges and becoming a qualified football coach. It never ceases to amaze me the enthusiasm and effort people put into the game and more importantly in giving their time. May I take this opportunity to wish you all the best for the remainder of the season. Well done!”
The letter and last Sunday’s football tournament have made Sohail even more determined to succeed in his chosen profession.
“This was my first big event. It’s based on getting all the local communities together from different parts of Yorkshire.
“I want to say a massive thank you to Soccer City – they have been amazing. I am now in the process of putting together another tournament next August this time in Manchester and I woud like to see them all over the country, but I wanted the first to be in Yorkshire.” Sohail would also like to see Class on Grass set up a wheelchair football team.
So what does he think about being hailed an inspiration?
“It still makes me laugh,” he says. “That’s now really why I do it, I just want to give more people access to football and to make them realise that they don’t need to be held back by anything, particularly a disability.”
A class act inspires others
Class on Grass was created in 2012 by Sohail Rehman, a fully qualified FA Football Coach.
Class on Grass aims to get children and their parents off the couch and into sport using its own unique style of fun, friendly, focused, skills based coaching.
The organisation believes enjoyment and a pressure-free environment is the key to unlocking potential within a child.
Class on Grass held its first tournament in Leeds which was attended by more than 50 people including Leeds United’s
It will be followed by a second tournament in Manchester in August 2014.
For more information visit www.classongrass.com