Josh Pugh spearheads England’s partially sighted team at World Games | Soccer

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Inside the reception of the hotel at St George’s Park, home to all 23 England teams, there is a striking, backlit canvas that celebrates the country’s most capped players. The England cap wall features those from the men’s, women’s, para and futsal teams who have at least 50 caps. Parallel with Alan Shearer and nestled above Harry Kane is the comedian Josh Pugh, a staple of the partially sighted team vying to win the IBSA World Games. “Sir Stanley Matthews is on it, Sir Bobby Charlton, bloody Beckham, it’s just amazing,” says Pugh, who is set to win his 62nd cap on Saturday. “I never get bored of seeing it. If my little boy goes there when he’s 20 and sees his dad’s name … I’m so proud.”

England’s partially sighted team are amateurs but prepare as professionally as possible. They study opposition clips, work with sports scientists and nutritionists, and swap pennants and sing the national anthem before their futsal matches. A draw with Italy in their final Group A match would cement a place in Monday’s semi-finals. “This is our World Cup,” Pugh says. “We eat properly, we train hard. It’s hard. But it should be; it should be hard to be an England player.” At the start of the week the squad received good-luck messages from friends and family. “I’m a Celebrity-style,” he says. “We once had a manager who made us watch a clip from the film 300 and we had a player sent off inside the first 10 minutes the next day.”

Pugh scored early in a final defeat by Ukraine four years ago – “we just poked the hornets’ nest, we ended up losing 6-2” – and is determined to go one better. “We’ve not played in front of big crowds before and we do rely on communication a lot, so it has been a bit Arteta and we’ve been training with crowd noise on,” he says, alluding to the Arsenal manager blaring You’ll Never Walk Alone before a trip to Anfield. Pugh is talking in England kit at the athletes village in Birmingham used for the Commonwealth Games. “But you have to get over that, coming here and being cool in England gear. We’re here to try and win.”

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Pugh was born with ocular albinism and nystagmus, making playing outside difficult because of a lack of pigmentation in his eyes. Staying up to watch England v Germany go the distance at Euro 96 as a child was a watershed moment and he began playing locally for Atherstone Eagles. “I was Beckham-mad,” he says. “He was so cool. I remember him coming on the scene and when he scored from the halfway line … I’d never seen anyone shoot from there in my life. It just blew my mind.”

Pugh is, of course, funny and engaging but there is a serious undercurrent to conversation. “I remember being at airports in my England gear in my early 20s and people would stop me and ask me and ask what squad I was in. I’d just lie and say: ‘I’m in the Under-21s or the Under-19s.’ I look back now and I’m ashamed of that. I should have said: ‘I’m in the England partially sighted team and this is what it is.’ Even in comedy I didn’t tell anyone I couldn’t see for ages. I’d go to Edinburgh [fringe] and people would be talking in these shows about having psoriasis and what a big journey they had been on … I didn’t know you could commodify this stuff. I was like: ‘I’ve got this huge thing that I’m holding back.’ It might be different now. When it was 2005, trying to get jobs and that, people were just scared of it, didn’t know what it meant. I just learned to hide it.”

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Michael Owen, whose son, James, has Stargardt disease, a condition that a few of the squad have, visited on Thursday and Sue Smith is among those to have sent messages. After the team won silver at the 2017 world championships, the Football Association invited the squad to Wembley before a World Cup qualifier against Slovakia. “The better game was one of our lads, Paul McHugh, beating Danny Mills in straight sets at table football in the VIP area.” We linger on the subject of former England internationals and Pugh recalls Paul Scholes sustaining a retina injury. “If anyone gets any eye injury, everyone’s like: ‘Get him in.’”

A few years ago, Graham Keeley, the team’s former manager who worked as a mentor to Gareth Southgate, arranged a visit from the England manager. “He [Keeley] said: ‘This is Gareth,’ and just left it. The lads can’t see distances … we could see a guy in shirt and trousers. Nobody knew it was Southgate and we all basically just ignored him thinking it was some waiter from the hotel. One of the [sighted] goalkeepers came down at dinner and was like: ‘You know that was Gareth Southgate?’ It was like: ‘Ohhh, it all makes sense.’”

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The only time Pugh has played Wembley is as a comedian, supporting Joe Lycett. Pugh, who has also supported Ricky Gervais and Kevin Bridges, recently returned from Edinburgh. “Gordon Strachan got turned away from my show last year. I’ve seen Gordon Strachan walking off … ‘Is that Gordon Strachan?’ ‘Yeah, we’ve had to say there’s no tickets.’ I said: ‘Let Gordon Strachan in! As a rule, if Gordon Strachan comes, even if it’s sold out, let Gordon Strachan in.’ He had to go to another show.” Pugh insists there is a crossover between comedy and football. “You have tactics for gigs, you have tactics for games. ‘We can’t go out swinging with this audience, we have to feel them out a bit.’”

England’s partially sighted team, including Josh Pugh, sing the national anthem at the World Games.
England’s partially sighted team, including Josh Pugh, sing the national anthem at the World Games. Photograph: Courtesy of Josh Pugh

Pugh remembers being treated differently at school and the day he was told he had to stop playing for his local team. “I remember the house phone going, my mum going out to take it and coming back in and she said: ‘You can’t go to football any more. They don’t want you there because you can’t see.’ I could not believe it, I was devastated. Then another team started up and I played for them for years, and it was a bit of a rivalry. I’d always give it some.

“But there was no malice in that from them, and not even ignorance, they just didn’t know what it meant. They are lovely, nice people and it’s moved on now. They just didn’t want me to get hurt or hurt somebody else … they were just scared of it.”

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The step up to 11-aside and bigger pitches proved tricky and he did not play for a team between the ages of 11 and 18. “The distances were too big, the ball was coming from too far away. And I’m an August birthday as well. So I’m the smallest player and I can’t f-ing see: you’re up against it then.”

At 19 he met John McDougall, England’s partially sighted captain who introduced him to futsal. “I was like: ‘I can see in this, I’m all right in this,’” says Pugh, who turns 34 next week. Pugh made his England debut at 21 and is vice-captain of the team competing at the University of Wolverhampton. Chris Holland, the former Newcastle midfielder whose sight was impaired after an acid attack, is a former teammate and a few years ago Pugh played against Max Kilman, the Wolves captain who became the first former England futsal international to play in the Premier League. “It’s end to end, there’s nowhere to hide on the pitch,” he says. “It’s wicked.”

Falling out of love with the game as a boy meant Pugh never really supported a team. “When I had my little boy I thought it would be great to have a team, me and him. I’ve always worked in Coventry and I live just outside of Cov, so we are part of the Sky Blue Army now. ‘We all sing together,’ I’m loving it.”

Pugh is in a good place, on stage and on the pitch. “Talking about that kid who loved football and thought he couldn’t do it any more,” Pugh says, reflecting. “I’ve got England caps at my house and I’m on the wall at St George’s. It’s amazing. I want to get to 100 [caps]. I don’t know … I had my sight classification this week and they signed me off four years, which basically says I officially cannot see for four years. That takes me until 2027. Who knows?”

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