Like many young boys, Paul McHugh dreamed of a career as a professional footballer. Early on in his career he spent time with several clubs, including Stoke City, Burton Albion, and Birmingham City, but due to an eye condition was unable to secure a scholarship with a pro team. However, Paul didn’t let that stand in his way and is now a rising star with the England Visually Impaired football team, who are currently ranked third in the world.
“I have an eye condition called Nystagmus and things like floodlighting conditions can affect my sight and therefore my performance levels,” he said. “So I struggled to perform consistently at academy level.”
Paul has made an incredible impact at the international level with 22 goals in just 21 games. He has won two bronze medals with England, as well as the golden boot award at the 2014 European Championships and is currently preparing for a tilt at global glory when the Partially Sighted Football World Championships take place in Italy at the end of May.
Paul’s success has been aided by a unique scholarship at the University of Worcester. The University’s Visually Impaired Football Scholarship programme supports talented blind and visually impaired footballers who are aiming high with their studies as well as their sport.
Paul, age 20, from Coventry, studies on the University of Worcester’s innovative Sports Coaching Science with Disability Sport degree pathway.
“I wanted to study in Worcester because I think the University is ahead of the game in offering unique degrees that fit really well with the jobs of the future,” he said. “The disability sports industry has really been gaining momentum in recent years for example, so it was a great opportunity to be able to come to Worcester and study disability sport at degree level.”
“The Visually Impaired Football Scholarship was also a big draw for me of course, and the support has been invaluable in helping me to balance both my studies and my sport,” he added. “Plus which, Worcester as a City is a strengthening force in sport generally, and I saw an opportunity to become a part of that scene and help to build something here, particularly in my sport – futsal.”
Although Paul’s eye condition made it difficult for him to achieve his ambitions at a pro-club in the 11-a-side game, in addition to his national VI achievements he has also enjoyed success in futsal’s National League with Worcester Futsal Club, which he founded and where he currently serves as Chair.
“The opportunity to develop my own futsal club here in Worcester was too good to pass up,” Paul said. “I run the club with Mo Abdullah, who is the University’s first-team captain. It’s fairly unusual for a club to be run by a 20 and 21-year-old like Mo and I, but we are determined to develop futsal in Worcester.”
For Paul, futsal is an ideal format where he can compete with fully-sighted peers in spite of his visual impairment. The enclosed court and stable lighting conditions do not pose as much of a challenge for his Nystagmus as the variable conditions found in the 11-a-side game.
“I’m really pleased with how things are going with Worcester Futsal Club,” Paul said. “WFC offers students from the University the chance to compete at a national and potentially an international level within an elite environment. The club currently offers coaching and equipment support to the University’s futsal teams, and we have 15 students from the University that are competing in the National Futsal League and FA Futsal Cup – the elite competitions for the sport in this country.”
Paul has already amassed an impressive array of stats and honours, but he feels there is more to come. “With England I’m aiming to win a major international trophy in the next four years,” he said. “We recently drew 0-0 with current World and European champions Ukraine, so we are very close. Longer term I’m aiming pretty big. In fact, I’d love to make history by becoming the top all time goal scorer for England, as well as setting a new record for appearances.”
Story by Will Norman of the University of Worcester