Stephen and Dominic Kilty beam with pride while recounting the wonder-goals they’ve scored. The 21-year-old twins both suffer from autism and severe speech and language disorders, and are star players for the Millwall Lion Hearts football team. Created two years ago in association with Millwall FC, the Lion Hearts is a 16-plus pan-disability team made up of 15 players, both male and female (the oldest player is 65).
Being part of the Lion Hearts has not only given players like Stephen and Dominic access to properly organised games, but has provided an opportunity for its players to learn key life skills. The Lion Hearts train every Thursday and once a month they enter two teams into a seven-a-side tournament run by the South London Special League – Stephen and Dominic were proud recipients of gold medals in October, having won the month’s tournament. The team is now in urgent need of a new minibus, to make sure they get to matches and maintain its winning record.
Most of the Lion Heart’s players come to the team through their relationship with Bede House, a Southwark-based charity that, among other things, offers long-term support to members of the local community with learning disabilities. ‘Millwall provides the venue where the team train, the kit and the coaches and organises events with the South London Special League,’ explains Theresa Jones, Bede House’s activities coordinator. ‘We provide the support workers that take the players to training and help out if anyone is having any issues while they’re playing.’
There’s more to the team than football. Sue Whitebread, a Bede House support worker and football enthusiast who helps at training sessions, paints a vivid picture of the improvements in attitude that the players have made since they began playing. ‘When we started two years ago there was no teamwork, no passing and when players got frustrated because they were losing then it was complete chaos – punching, kicking, tantrums,’ she says. ‘But we’ve slowly taught them that losing can help you improve. I like to say, “If you don’t win, you learn”. Now there is more discipline and understanding of how the game is played. We have also tried to teach that football is a team game and it isn’t just about scoring a goal. The players work together fantastically now and support each other both on and off the pitch. There haven’t been any red cards for ages!’
Ben Perryman, Millwall’s Disability Sports Development Officer, speaks of the joy that the players get from being on the field. ‘For the guys, when they score a goal or the team scores a goal you can see the relief on their faces, they get incredibly excited.’ Millwall FC also does a lot to inspire the players and help them bond. ‘Players from the Lion Hearts get free tickets to some league games, which they go to with staff from Millwall and from the Bede, and sometime they get to go onto the pitch with donation buckets to try and raise money for the team,’ says Ben.
But the team needs to raise more to fund a much-needed new minibus, which has prompted Stephen Kilty, along with 10 members of Millwall staff, to do a sponsored skydive from 12,000ft. Millwall’s players will be there to support and watch the dive (much to the twins’ delight) and help Stephen reach his target of £5,000. Not to be outdone, later this year his brother, Dominic, will be doing a sponsored swim to raise money for the team, too. You don’t need to be a Millwall fan to support these inspiring young players.