Exmouth’s Gateway Club football teams going from strength to strength thanks to Paul and Emma Baldwin

Members of the Exmouth Gateway Club football team. Picture; PAUL BALDWIN

Members of the Exmouth Gateway Club football team. Picture; PAUL BALDWIN - Credit: Archant

Paul Baldwin is most certainly one of footballs’ ‘unsung heroes’.

Members of the Exmouth Gateway Club football team. Picture; PAUL BALDWIN

Members of the Exmouth Gateway Club football team. Picture; PAUL BALDWIN - Credit: Archant

Paul and his wife Emma, are the leading lights behind the Exmouth-based Gateway Club football section.

There is a story far detached from the very public face of elite football and the millionaire lifestyles enjoyed by many folk fortunate enough to be at that level.

Paul’s own passion for football began as a youngster.

He explains saying: “I went to my first football match, which was a testimonial game, before I was 10. The game was Charlton Athletic versus Arsenal, on what was a very wet midweek evening – but I loved it and was instantly hooked!

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“Here we are some 40 years on and I remain a very passionate Charlton Athletic supporter”.

With regards to an involvement with the game, Paul says: “I’ve been involved in football in Devon since my early 20s. First it was as a player and then, following a serious football injury, I was forced to stop playing, but to stay involved I took up refereeing. I spent some 15 years refereeing in North Devon and for the last 10 years I have been whistle blowing around East Devon.”

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He added: “I guess the part I have always liked about football is the getting together on a Saturday afternoon and the enjoyment football can bring.”

So, how did it come into play that Paul got involved with the football team at the gateway Club?

Paul says: “My wife Emma, a club leader at the gateway Club, was initially approached by the disability officer at the Devon FA, Ashley Harris, who wanted to know if there was any chance that the club might want to form a football team.

“It immediately struck us that this was a great idea. The Exmouth Gateway Club, a group for adults with learning disabilities, was formed in 1989. There wasn’t a team at the time but we looked at it and held our first gathering to gauge interest. We had four players at that first session in September 2014 and held it at Exmouth Town Football Club.

“It quickly gained interest and we initially formed a team that was called Exmouth Town Disability FC.

“We stayed at Town for two years before moving to our present home at Exmouth Rugby Club, which is also home to the Gateway Club and subsequently renamed the football club Exmouth Tigers Disability FC. “We now have three teams- two male and one female team.

“We have 30 players in the football squad and each of the three teams has a different name; Exmouth Tigers, Exmouth Tigers Cubs and Exmouth Tigresses.

“Emma looks after the ladies team with Carolyn Letheren while Steve Letheren

helps me with the Tigers and Nick and Stuart Tuckett look after the Cubs. We also have a pool of around 10 other volunteers who are invaluable with their help and support at both training and tournaments.”

In terms of the football the teams play, it is predominantly 5-a-side and the ages of the players run from the youngest at 18 and the oldest is well into his 50s. Players can join the club from the age of 16.

The teams play in the Devon Ability Counts League.

The men play in Intermediate One and League Two in a structure that is county wide and has seven different ‘leagues’; Premier One, Premier Two, Championship, Intermediate One, Intermediate Two, League One and League Two.

The ladies play in the Women’s League.

The Ability Counts League play approximately once a month where all teams play against the other teams in their league and a league table is then produced over the season. There are also three county cup competitions contested during the season.

Speaking about how the teams fared last season, Paul says: “This was the first season where we have split the male teams into two teams, which means the ones with more ability have a chance to compete against players of their own level and the second male team is more of the ‘fun-first’ type of football.

“The Tigers have done really well over the five seasons in which they have been playing competitive football. They have enjoyed four promotions and won the county cup competition on one occasion while also ending as runners-up in a higher level cup.

“When the last season came to an abrupt halt, the first team were well on-course to finish top of the league after a good run of results, while both the Cubs and the Tigresses were performing well in their respective leagues.”

To the question of what is the biggest challenge he faces with the team, Paul, who is also the Ability Counts League fixture secretary, is quick to respond saying: “I honestly do not find anything a ‘chore’ when it comes to sorting football out for the guys.

“I love doing it and watching them improve and also seeing the enjoyment they get out of it.”

The football club train each Saturday morning between 9.30am and 10.30am at Exmouth Rugby Club, though they do not train when they have one of the tournaments which take place on Sundays, running from 10am through to 3pm.

Like all football clubs, Paul is always happy to welcome new players. He says: “We are always looking for more players of all abilities, the only criteria is that they have to have a registered disability and be over the age of 16.

“We are also always looking for volunteers to help with coaching, training and at tournaments.”

To the topical subject of ‘how much are you and the players missing the game owing to the current Coronavirus pandemic, Paul says: “We are all missing football very much, not only for the football side of things, but also because of the meeting up with other people and the social side of things.

“Some of the volunteers have been keeping in touch with the footballers to see how they are getting on through lockdown, as some of our players are struggling with the different times.

“As for a resumption of doing what we love, we are keen to get back to it, but also acknowledge that we need to wait guidance from Devon FA and also from the rugby club as to when the facilities are back open.

“We are hopeful that there will be some come of play next season.”

Finally, we asked Paul about the all-important matter of how they fund their football.

Paul says: “As a football club, we do not ask any of our players to pay for playing football as most are on very limited incomes and we would rather have people play than not come because they couldn’t afford it.

“We fund the football club from donations, sponsorship and also from the main charity. “With us not being able to run the main charity at the moment owing to the pandemic, we haven’t had the funds we would normally have and are struggling, just like other charities.

“We were going to try and fund for training wear for the teams and also some pop-up gazebos to ensure the teams have some shelter between games at tournaments but we have had to put those ideas on hold.

“We do have two kit sponsors which are Greendale and The Maltsters Arms and we were gifted a defibrillator from Greendale and Jays Aim this year, to ensure we are all safe whilst at matches and we are very thankful for all of their help and support.”

We wish Paul and Emma and all connected with the Gateway Club football section the very best for the future and hope it will not be too long before they are back in competitive action once again.

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