Did Carlisle United’s players embrace manager Steven Pressley when they received their new shirts this season? It seems unlikely.

Things are very different for the club’s disability football team. John Halpin is its manager, and the man behind much of United’s admirable work in the community.

John has been looking forward to giving his players their new shirts: Carlisle’s mint-green away kit. As they approach, he hands the shirts over.

“Here you go - what do you think of this?”

There are smiles, shouts of “Wow!” and hugs. John is every bit as pleased as his players.

“Just by putting a little bit into this, I get so much out of it,” he says. “Just to see the kids enjoy themselves. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in their life, they come here and they’re part of the team.”

John is speaking on a sunny evening at the football pitches behind Carlisle’s Richard Rose Central Academy, a hefty goal-kick away from Brunton Park.

This is the monthly get-together of The Cumberland Ability Counts League, for teams from across north and west Cumbria.

It is organised by the Cumberland Football Association and sponsored by The Cumberland Building Society.

Players must be at least 16. Most are in their teens or twenties. Each has some form of disability. But they are here to enjoy what they can do, not to dwell on what they can’t.

“The feedback we get is mostly from the parents,” says John. “They say their kids absolutely live for it. They can’t wait to turn up again for the next game.

“They couldn’t care less about winning or losing. Everybody joins in. Everybody gets a game. They’re so respectful of each other. One or two teams have got better players. But we find they take a back seat. I find that really refreshing.”

John shouts encouragement during his team’s match against west Cumbrian side Windscale.

As a Carlisle United player in the 1980s, John was a quick and skilful winger. He knows that scoring a goal is not the most important thing that can happen on a football pitch.

He nods towards one of his players. “When we started this, the lad over there wouldn’t speak. Now he chats away. He’s really come out of his shell.”

Windscale win 2-0. John is not overly concerned.

“Shake hands, everybody!” he tells his team. “Well done, yous. That was excellent, that.”

Carlisle United’s next opponents are Wolverines, one of three teams run by West Coast Warriors.

Carlisle player Drew Nicholson is hit in the midriff by the ball. If this was the Premier League she’d be squirming on the ground. Instead she gives John a thumbs up.

Drew is one of the few females here tonight. More would be very welcome.

John applauds a Wolverines’ shot. “Good attempt!”

United’s star striker is Oliver Denman, known as Olly. He supports Manchester United and his favourite player is Anthony Martial. Olly outshines his hero, hitting a hat-trick in three minutes.

Just as important is another young man who stands silently by the side of the pitch. During each match John asks him if he’d like to go on. He shakes his head. No matter. He still wears the shirt. He is still part of the team.

Some disabilities are less visible than others. On the next pitch Carlisle City Deaf FC are taking on Unisun Mental Health. The quality of football is high.

These teams are in the Premiership: the league’s top division. Carlisle United play in the Championship: the middle tier.

Neil Richardson, 37, is Unisun’s captain. “I qualify through mental health,” he says. “I’ve been signed off work with mental health since I was 19. Quite a few on the team have mental health, autism, ME. People who seem basically normal but they do have conditions. Depression counts.”

What does he like about playing here? “It takes your mind off it. Also, what’s on your mind, you can take it out in playing football. It releases stress and gets your anxiety down.”

Neil is talking while watching a match involving Carlisle Reivers, a mainstream club which has four disability teams.

“Everybody on that Reivers team is my friend,” he says, then yells at one player “Stephen - turn!”

Quickly he adds “Sorry about that... I’m a bit obsessed with football.”

Unisun’s manager Warren Thompson has seen football make a difference to those struggling with their mental health.

“One lad wouldn’t interact with people for three years. Now he’s a lot better. Lads are not being isolated at home. They’re getting involved in something. And exercise is good.”

Warren has his own experience of mental health problems.

“I got laid off with depression three years ago. Football does make a difference to me. I’m not spending as much time in my bed. It’s something to get out of bed for and look forward to.

“The stigma around mental health is not as bad now. People are more understanding. It’s one in four people with depression. Everybody should be able to play.”

Carlisle City Deaf FC’s founder Thomas Rhodes says of the league: “It’s getting deaf people to come together and be part of the community.”

What issues do deaf players face?

“It’s harder for us to hear the referee. When people shout out for the ball we struggle to hear that. We have to look up more. We use hand signals: ‘Drop back.’ ‘Push forward.’ It’s really competitive. Everybody here just wants to win.”

Much less competitive is the Super League. This division of The Cumberland Ability Counts League is for players with not so much ability, and in several cases very little mobility.

For some, just standing on a football pitch is a victory.

Super League matches are played on a smaller pitch, with four players on each team instead of five, and six-minute halves instead of eight minutes.

One team, The Pink Panthers, is a ladies side. When Alison Rumney scores against Eden Mencap, having missed a few chances, referee Paul Carrigan cheers and gives her a high five.

Paul is women and girls officer for the Cumberland FA.

“This is one of the best football events you can attend,” he says. “When you look at the enjoyment on the players’ faces... they absolutely love being here.”

Andrew Gordon, head of relationships with The Cumberland Building Society, also referees games in this division.

After one match someone asks him “What was the score?”

“I’ve absolutely no idea,” replies Andrew.

After a brief consultation he says: “There were so many good goals we thought we’d call it a draw: 4-4.”

Becky Towns, communications executive with The Cumberland, says: “We’re really proud to be supporting the league, especially having seen first-hand the positive difference it has on people in our communities.”

Ally Duncan is on the sidelines to support her cousin; Carlisle Reivers’ goalkeeper Matthew Armstrong.

Being a goalie in this division is a thankless task. Many goals are scored by players coming forward with little opposition in their way.

But Matthew, having picked the ball out of his net many times, walks off the pitch smiling.

“He loves it,” says Ally. “They get dead excited about it. In the days leading up to it there’s the countdown. They just really, really look forward to it. It’s so good how they get the chance to participate.”

n If you are interested in joining The Cumberland Ability Counts League as a player, volunteer or referee, please email Ray.Sempill@CumberlandFA.com