Interview: Great Britain Deaf Women’s footballer Claire Stancliffe

Great Britain Deaf women's team line up together before a game in their navy kit.

I first became aware of Claire Stancliffe when I stumbled across her blog. She is documenting her rehabilitation after suffering a nasty knee injury while leading the GB Deaf Football team against Brazil in the bronze medal match Deaflympics in 2017. Claire decided to share her journey after she found it hard to find any detailed blogs about the rehabilitation from this injury. Hopefully reading about her experiences will help others going through similar. I have been very fortunate to have some time to chat with Claire about her inspiration, grassroots experience, how she confronted the challenges she faced in football and being voted Sky Sports Sportswoman of the month.

Since 71: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Claire: I was born in Reading but have lived in Northamptonshire since I was 8 years old. I play at centre back for Corby Town Ladies FC and Great Britain Deaf Women’s football squad. To participate in Deaf football, you must have a loss of 55 decibels or more in your best ear which is considered ‘severe hearing loss.’ I am profoundly deaf and without my hearing aid/implant and I can’t really hear anything. I am also a massive Liverpool FC supporter.

Who was your biggest footballing inspiration while growing up?
I have several. Definitely my parents who both played football themselves. They introduced me to the sport but never put any pressure on me so that made the experience growing up enjoyable. I looked up to Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard growing up. Steven Gerrard was my biggest role model as I used to be a centre midfielder and wanted to play exactly like him. As women’s football grew, I really liked the style of Jill Scott. I remember the first time I got to watch her play. England Deaf Women’s football squad got invited as VIPs to an FA Cup Women’s final, Arsenal Women v Everton Ladies. Everyone in the squad had to double check I wasn’t on the pitch. They all thought I looked like Jill Scott and had the same football style. She’s the engine of the team.

Claire Stancliffe celebrates a goal for Great Britain's Deaf Women's football
Great Britain's Deaf Women's football team

Could you tell me about your experience at youth football?
I played football for my school teams but I had to play in the boy’s team due to the lack of female participation. I first started playing league football when I was 15 for Vicarage Farm U16 girls. After my first season I was scouted by Rushden and Diamonds Centre of Excellence U16s manager. He invited me along to training for a trial and I was successful. After this, I went on to play for Northampton Town Ladies FC winning the double in 2016 which was the most enjoyable season so I would say this was my highlight. I’ve had many lows which are purely down to my hearing. New managers come into teams and aren’t deaf aware. Even though I tell the coach/manager and suggest ideas, they don’t adapt their sessions. It has a massive impact on my confidence which means I don’t play well. I also get to the point where I don’t even want to go to training. This is when I know I need a change.

How did you come to play with the Great Britain Deaf Football team?
Back in 2006, I went through a rough time. I was 17 when I started to struggle with being deaf. I realised how much I was missing out on, couldn’t join in with dressing room banter, couldn’t communicate on the pitch and players would have a go at me. I didn’t know any other deaf people and thought I was the only one in the world. So I decided to do some research on the internet and I was absolutely amazed to see GB had a deaf squad. They had just been to the Deaflympics 2005 in Melbourne and won the bronze. I was in awe! I got in contact with the coach and he invited me down to trials in 2007. So since then, I’ve been involved with GB.

Has the pathway to the side changed since that time? How can someone put themselves forward for involvement?
The pathway has pretty much stayed the same. GB have an open mind as they know there are deaf players out there who we are unaware of. I was one of those. There are trials before preparation for competitions. Also, the manager/coach always leaves space at training camps for potential squad members. They just need to get in contact with GB and it goes from there. They are a lovely bunch!

Claire Stancliffe prior to a match with Brazil

It was widely reported in the national press that there were serious funding issues that may have prevented the Great Britain Deaf Football team competing at the Deaflympics. Can you tell me about the lengths that you’ve had to go to in order to raise money for the side?
The funding was a massive issue. The year before, I was told Christmas 2015 that GB were not going to send the women’s squad to the Deaf World Cup 2016. I refused to accept this, we had already missed 2012 for this reason. So I said, “give me 30 days and if I raise half the money, can we go?” They agreed and I embarked on a £15000 JustGiving crowdfunding campaign. I don’t think anyone believed I could do it. Halfway through, we had about £3,000. New Year’s Eve I had an email saying the normal “you have a donation”. I was always curious to see who it was so I opened it and I couldn’t believe it. Jack Butland had donated £5,000 and that set everything off. Donations were flowing and we went viral even featuring on Sky Sports News. We reached £18,000 at the end of the campaign. After this, James Milner donated £5,000.

So after the success I had, GB asked me to raise money for the men’s/women’s squad to go to the Deaflympics 2017. £100,000 was needed so I adopted the same method to raise money. In September, I was given a deadline of £20,000 to pay the flight deposit for all staff/players. With 30 days to go, Gary Neville had seen my tweet somehow and said: “If the FA won’t pay it, I will.”  A huge relief as I was genuinely worried I wouldn’t get us there and we would have 60 devastated players/staff. April 2017 was the deadline for the whole sum and just 1 day before, we hit the £100,000 target. I literally spent nine months constantly fundraising and plugging our appeal around my own work and training commitments so my life was non stop. Very tough but so rewarding.

I sent out numerous emails with our campaign, design sponsorship packages, arrange the women’s training camps, manage social media accounts, enquiries, media requests, design the kit, sort kit orders, agree discounted sports supplements, donations of other bits such as water bottles, eBay auctions for the SkyBet donation of 72 EFL signed shirts and other signed memorabilia etc. I have to admit I was exhausted and very pleased it was over. This gave me a few months to focus on myself and get myself ready for the Deaflympics 2017.

Due to your efforts with the side, you were voted sportswoman of the month in July by Sky Sports, beating Wimbledon champion Serena Williams. How did that feel?
At the start, I was gobsmacked and thought how on earth can I compete with superwoman Serena Williams. She’s a machine and just an incredible athlete. Someone who has a fan base running into millions. How can I, a nobody, win against Serena? Then as the week went on, it started to feel like I could actually win. I had so much support from across the world that my vote count went into the 70-80%. Then it was confirmed on Sky Sports Sportswoman programme that I had won. It was just incredible and it’s a huge thing for the deaf community to have a deaf person recognised on that scale. I was just so pleased that Deaf sport was getting awareness and it was all for my team. Without them, I’m nothing.

What can you remember about your international debut?
I don’t think my international debut is one I can forget. I made my debut at the Deaf World Cup 2008 for England (politics back then meant Home nations enter Euros/Worlds. It has now reverted back to this). I was named to start in the first game against South Africa in left midfield. 4 minutes into the game, I scored a 30 yarder with my right foot (I’m left footed). I went on to score a further 3 goals and we won 10-1. So 4 goals on my England debut from left midfield at 19 years old.

Is there one particular highlight of your career so far that you are most proud of?
Tough one but it’s going to have to be the Deaf World Cup 2016 when we won the bronze and I was captain. We just missed out on reaching the final after losing to full-time professionals Russia, 1-0. 17 hours after this, the squad went out and beat Poland 2-0 to win the bronze. Best feeling ever and I’m so proud of the players for pulling together. 6 games in 11 days as self-funded athletes was not easy.

On the 28th July 2017, you sustained a very serious knee injury at the Deaflympics 2017 whilst representing GB in the bronze medal match. You’ve been blogging about your recovery process, have you found this therapeutic?
Absolutely. When I got my diagnosis, I had no idea about the injury, like how you recover etc. I couldn’t find many real-life stories on the internet. I really struggled with this injury mentally and physically. I was very immobile for a long time and needed something to cure the boredom and keep me sane. So I started to record my progress and someone suggested I should blog about it. I wasn’t 100% convinced at the start as I struggle with writing but I thought I would give it a go. It’s been a huge help. Also it kind of keeps everyone updated as many donated to help me get the treatment I need. I hope that it can help someone else. I’ve been as honest as I can, it’s brutal.

July 2017 you suffered quite a nasty injury. Could you tell us about what happened?
Straight after kick off for the Deaflympics 2017 bronze medal match, the Brazil defence sent a long ball over the back line. I’m a very slow player but a good reader of the game. I knew from my research, their forward was speedy. So I already gave myself 10 yards on her. The GB keeper indicated she was coming out to clear the ball, so I went to shield it from the forward. My right foot was planted and the forward knocked into me slightly whilst mid running which made me lose my balance. My body kind of collapsed as I hadn’t been well for a week with a stomach bug. Unfortunately, my heel was stuck in the grass and my knee hyperextended whilst caving in then out.

It must have been hard to take. What would you say was harder to recover from, the physical injury or the mental impact? I wondered if that was also an opportunity to mention your support network and your just giving campaign?
It was gutting. I felt so awful letting my country down as I spent the game in the hospital. Then when I was actually given the MRI results and told if I don’t get the correct treatment ASAP, I won’t play again. I just broke down. My heart sank. Reality started to kick in. I couldn’t work as I’m a senior sports coach. I go into primary schools to deliver PE lessons. Unfortunately, due to referral and NHS waiting times, I would have been waiting 9-12 months to get my knee sorted. After discussions with physio, I was told to play again, I need to have it done ASAP due to my age and severity. I also had to weigh up the amount of work I would miss by waiting. My knee was in a really bad way, I still needed crutches to get about properly three months post-injury.

When I updated everyone on social media, a lot of people wanted to help me get back on my feet and play football again. There were many suggestions of a fundraising page. At first I brushed the idea to the side but then a few people close to me said just let people help, it’s the least I deserved after all the work I had done. No one will be forced to donate. I went through everything with a member of staff at GB, made sure the wording was ok etc and it was set up. I posted it on my twitter.

After a few weeks, Jacqui Oatley saw my tweet and wanted to help so she publicised my campaign. She’s been amazing and put me in touch with some contacts who have helped me in other ways. Jacqui’s help meant my tweet reached over 600 retweets and approximately £5,000 was raised. Just £2,000 short of the cost which I covered myself and the operation went ahead on 31st October 2017. The physical side is awful. The original injury was horrendous, I literally could not move and was gripping the grass. I think I even passed out at one stage in the ambulance. I could hardly move my leg for the next week as it was just so swollen and painful. I even had to fly home with the whole squad 48 hours after injury. Which was a nightmare! Then just when I feel the pain is finally decreasing a lot, I had the op. I woke up in my room and agony. I was given regular morphine and just slept the whole day. The knee wasn’t too bad, but the hamstring was excruciating. This is where they take the graft for the new ACL. I’m now almost twelve months post op and it’s been a very painful journey.  I’ve just had second surgery, thanks to the Rosslyn Sports Injury Trust, to clear out scar tissue due to clunking/cracking and restriction of movement. I’m pleased to say that so far so good and my knee feels the best it has in 15 months.

The mental side of the injury is unexplainable. Until you’ve been through this injury, surgery and rehab, you can’t fully understand what it’s like. I’ve lost people who I thought were my friends, I almost gave up, I find it very hard to trust people, I’ve questioned myself pretty much every day and I lost all of my confidence. I’m not good enough. I can’t do this. Maybe it’s time to call it day. What’s the point? Will I ever walk, run, play football again? Can I do my job? Just a few things that are constantly in my head. Luckily I have a great support network. My family have been my rocks. I have a few best friends from the GB squad who have stuck by me all the way because they know how bad everything has been from the start.

One of the most important people during this has to be my physio Fred from Strong Lines Physiotherapy. Thanks to the PFA, this year all my physio has been funded. Fred has kept me going. So many times I wanted to give up, felt like I was getting nowhere. Yet he was always there to give me a kick in the right direction, supported me with any decisions, gave me the confidence to progress. Without this input, I have no doubt I would have retired from football. Now I’m very near to returning to play. The physical side of things I will get over, the mental side will stay with me for a very long time.

Claire lays on a stretcher immediately after suffering the injury

Who was the best manager that you’ve worked with in your playing career and why?
In Deaf football, it has to be Chris Gwynn. Chris is very old school when it comes to coaching. In 2015, we were struggling for players due to funding. We literally had to go to the Euros with the bare 11. Chris appointed me as captain and asked me to move from centre mid to centre back. Chris brought the best out in me. For the Deaf World Cup 2016, most of our original squad came back thanks to the funding success. With this, I expected the captaincy to be given to one of the better players. But Chris decided I should carry on. Since 2015 I have been captain of the GB squad, his belief and his coaching has given me the confidence to be a leader and play a new position.

Hearing football – George Joyce (Corby Town Ladies FC). I was at Northampton Town Ladies with him in 2016 when we did the double. My first ever season as a centre back and I thoroughly enjoyed it. All because again he believed in me and gave me confidence. He also made sure his training sessions were inclusive. Not once did I feel left out or that being deaf had an impact on the team.

What are your targets for the rest of the season?
The main target for me is to be able to step back out on the pitch. To put on the match kit, have that match day feeling and play without worrying. Whether I’ll be the same player as before, remains to be seen.

The rest of this season will also be spent on being even stronger physically. Getting my quads and hamstrings as strong as possible so I can put myself in contention for the England Deaf Women’s football squad who will be going to the Euros 2019 in Crete.

When you finish playing are you looking to stay in the game and get involved with coaching, or maybe an administerial role?
I am already a level two qualified coach and also a senior sports coach for my job. Coaching has always been a part of my future plan. But also I would potentially consider a future career in fundraising/social media. I would like to keep my options open.

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