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Focused on his goal

Photo: Harrison's story

On the path to a career in professional football, 13-year-old Harrison will let nothing stand in the way of his dream.

As proud dad Tony took his place in the stand to watch his son play in an international football tournament at professional level, he couldn’t help feeling nervous. The local teams’ fans were banging drums, blowing trumpets and playing loud music. It was an atmosphere unlike any Harrison (13) had played football in before. How would he cope with the noise and acoustics in an indoor arena? Tony panicked, thinking Harrison, who is moderately to severely deaf, might struggle to hear and that it might affect his game.

He didn’t need to worry. Harrison not only scored from a tricky corner kick in the final, but was chosen to lift the trophy when his team were awarded the Kedainiai Arena Cup they’d been competing for in Lithuania, two years ago.

“I’m used to playing outdoors, and shouting on the sidelines isn’t usually allowed. It was very different for me,” says Harrison, who wears hearing aids. “I tried not to pay much attention. I did my best to block it out and just concentrate on the game.”

This focused attitude has seen Harrison progress from amateur club player to professional academy star in Wimbledon AFC’s under 14s squad. “I didn’t think I’d be here now when I started playing football,” he says. “I was about six and it was just something fun to do with my friends. It’s a dream to have reached this level, though, because I love the game so much.”

After stints with smaller, local teams, Harrison tried out for the under 11s at Wimbledon. Getting into this professional team meant football became a huge part of his life. He trains three evenings a week, has a match every Sunday and sometimes there’s a midweek match too. “Even on the days when I’m not playing a match or training at Wimbledon, I train by myself,” says Harrison. “I play football every single day.”

Harrison’s dedication has set him on the path towards a career in football and he’s determined to let nothing stand in his way, including his deafness. “My deafness is there, but I try my hardest not to let it affect me,” he says. In fact, Harrison, who is a midfielder, has been able to use his hearing loss to his advantage, to set him apart from other players on the field.

“One of Harrison’s biggest strengths is that he reads the game so well, and that’s probably a result of his hearing loss,” says Tony. “He’s always had to engage visually with what’s going on, more than the other players, because he can’t rely on being able to hear. That’s become his real strength – he has a great instinct for what’s going to unfold and can recognise dangers in the game very quickly. It means he performs a huge number of tackles and interceptions.”

Despite his talent, reaching professional level has had its challenges for Harrison. “I wear my hearing aids to play, but my old set weren’t waterproof,” he says. “If it was raining, they would turn off and I wouldn’t hear a thing.” Undeterred, Harrison found a way to adapt. “I learnt to read the body language of the coaches and other players and I still do this now, even with my water-resistant hearing aids. It can really help if it’s windy, for example.”

“One of the FA’s deaf team coaches regularly gets in touch with us and Harrison’s coaches,” Tony adds. “He also visits regularly to speak to the coaches about how best to help Harrison and to make sure they’re fully deaf aware.”

"I learnt to read the body language of the coaches and other players if I couldn’t hear what they were saying."

Used to overcoming challenges to pursue his dream, not even the COVID-19 pandemic could stop Harrison improving his game. With training at Wimbledon and matches cancelled during the first lockdown and sporadic for the following year, Harrison found ways to keep up his training. “I want to play football as a career, so I had to continue training,” says Harrison. “I’d go to the fields across from where we live and practise by myself as often as I could. I really missed being at Wimbledon, but I did use the opportunity to focus on the things I needed to improve.”

The next step towards a career in football for Harrison is to earn a scholarship. “The next year will be crucial,” says Tony, who explains that a football scholarship would see Harrison leave school to continue his education alongside his football coaching at Wimbledon.

“There are 15 of us in the under 14s squad and we all want a scholarship, but only five or six of us will get a place,” says Harrison. “From there, only a few will end up with a contract in professional football. We’re friends off the pitch, but on the pitch we’re all competing for this. I have to be the best.”

This fierce competition is something Harrison is used to. Each season, the players find out who will be retained and who will be released from the club. “It would be heartbreaking to be released now, so close to my scholarship dream,” he says.

“For a long time now, I’ve wanted to be a footballer. I have to work hard and be determined, and my deafness can’t stop me doing that.”

Football has not only become a huge part of Harrison’s life but of Tony’s too. “I’ve been able to watch Harrison play at all the top clubs and I’m so proud of him,” says Tony. “He works extremely hard and I think he’s the only deaf player in the country competing at a mainstream professional level. He really deserves to achieve his dream.”