"I like the idea of proving that you can do something, rather than you can’t,” says Thomas Atkinson, the 19-year-old from Carlisle who is one of England’s leading amputee footballers – and who is about to realise a dream of turning professional

Atkinson, next weekend, will play his first competitive games for Legia Warsaw, the Polish club he has just joined full-time. It is the latest step for a young goalkeeper who has already represented England for many years with achievements that include this year’s Nations League title.

The Cumbrian was also named goalkeeper of the tournament and, at home in Belle Vue, mantelpieces bear the weight of many other trophies he has already won. Atkinson, who until now has played for Portsmouth and Newcastle in England, will make regular flights to Poland to play for his new club.

“I’ve always played football because I love it, and didn’t think there was potential for it to be a career,” he says. “This opportunity that’s been offered to me…I’d be silly not to take it.

“It’s going to be a lot of travelling, but some sacrifices you have to make to live your dreams. I considered whether I would move out there, but I think it’s easier to do it this way at the start. If I’m enjoying it, if I like playing there and like the country, it’s easier to look at apartments and things like that. If I jump into all that now and don’t like it, I’m pretty stuck.”

News and Star: Atkinson celebrates during England's Nations League victory in the summerAtkinson celebrates during England's Nations League victory in the summer (Image: Jake Kirkman)

Atkinson is not, it should be said, in any doubt about his ability to make the most of the move. Legia approached him after he shone in the Nations League, where England won their first major trophy since 1989. He says: “I’ve never tested myself at this level of elite competition for a full season. But I’d definitely back myself to be one of the best, if not the best.

“It’s really exciting. You’ve got some of the best players in the world out there. Honestly, I cannot wait.”

Atkinson says he is grateful that a professional opportunity has come his way in a more enlightened period of disability sport. He is keenly aware that, had he been born in a different era, things would have been different.

“Even nine or ten years ago, it was pretty much a grassroots thing,” he says. “Since then there’s been a lot of development in funding, sponsorship, media. When I came into it, it was an interest, a hobby. It’s at a point now where I’m getting paid to play amputee football. This was a dream I didn’t think could come true.”

It is an understatement to say doctors did not think this kind of aspiration would be open to Atkinson. As we discuss his story he calls his dad, Gary, and mum, Nicola, into the room to explain how Thomas, who was born without a left hand and with a deformity on his left leg, defied medical predictions from the beginning.

“They [doctors] said he wouldn’t walk, that he would always be the poorly boy at school and would never do sport,” says Gary. “His foot was underdeveloped, so they were going to do multiple operations over the years with a metal cage around his leg to try and stretch it. But his foot would never grow – there were no bones in it.”

A second opinion, though, changed the family’s outlook. His leg was amputated when Thomas was two and, from around the time of the operation, Gary produces a photo of the toddler waddling happily down the hospital corridor.

News and Star: Thomas, pictured playing for Carlisle City aged seven, was born without his left hand and then had part of his left leg amputated - but soon became a junior football star in CarlisleThomas, pictured playing for Carlisle City aged seven, was born without his left hand and then had part of his left leg amputated - but soon became a junior football star in Carlisle (Image: Kevin Nobin)

The Atkinsons always wanted Thomas to think of what he was capable of, rather than of limitations. “If it had been our first child, we’d have wrapped him in cotton wool. But we knew by doing that, we would make him more ‘disabled’, because he wasn’t able to do something himself,” says Nicola.

“And he’s never been called that,” adds Gary.

Atkinson remembers first kicking a ball around with his older brother when he was six. “At about seven I joined Carlisle City and played there for quite a while,” he says. “I had an advantage – most kids hadn’t developed power at that age, but I had a prosthetic leg and could toe-punt a ball a million miles an hour.”

He went on to play junior football for Northbank and was eventually recommended to England by the Cumberland Football Association after he had attended football camps set up by Carlisle United’s Community Sports Trust, the organisation for whom he now works as a coach.

He continued to play able-bodied football back home but his ability in amputee football was soon apparent. He was called up by England Under-21s at 15 and played for the senior side in the European Championships at just 17.

It was a brilliant rise, even more so in the context of those doctors’ gloomy prediction. “I always had those comments in the back of my mind since I was told about them, and I’ve always liked the idea of proving what’s possible,” Atkinson says.

“If anyone says, ‘You can’t run, you can’t walk, you can’t play football because you’re disabled, you can’t be that good because you’ve got one leg, you can’t go in goal because you’ve got one hand’…it feeds into the idea of me versus everyone that doesn’t believe in me.

News and Star: Thomas aged 12 playing for NorthbankThomas aged 12 playing for Northbank (Image: Stuart Walker)

“It’s my show. It’s my story to write. This is the way I am – I’m not going to get a random hand transplant. I’m not going to wake up tomorrow and I’ve got my left foot. These are the cards I’ve been dealt. Either you accept it or you sit and cry about it – and if you do that, you won’t better yourself.

“This is who I am and how I’m going to live. These are my dreams, whether I’ve got one leg, no legs, two legs. I like the idea that, ok, you’ve got this knock-back and a harder path, but you can get there.”

Atkinson remembers watching the London 2012 Paralympics as a boy and being inspired by the sprinter Johnnie Peacock, whose right leg was amputated in childhood. Peacock surged to gold in the T44 100m. “I was thinking, ‘That’s so cool. Why can’t I do that?’,” Atkinson says.

As he grew in amputee football, his involvement for Newcastle – his closest senior team – involved serious commitment from Thomas and his family. “My dad must have racked up some incredible miles,” he says, “sometimes just for a two-hour training session.

“Again, it comes down to the fact in disability sport you might have a million different steps, not the easy path. My parents don’t like getting praise but I could not have done half of what I’ve done without my family.”

There is an emotional interlude to our conversation when Thomas remembers being told that his grandfather, on his deathbed, made a bold prediction. Gary manages to hold back the tears when he explains: “I was working in America, and came back as my dad was dying. He was in Wigan Infirmary and drifting. I was talking to him about Thomas’s football and he said, ‘He’ll be absolutely fine – he’ll play for England’.”

News and Star: Thomas with the Nations League Trophy and the goalkeeper of the tournament trophy after England's success in Krakow this yearThomas with the Nations League Trophy and the goalkeeper of the tournament trophy after England's success in Krakow this year (Image: Jake Kirkman)

Thomas was only nine at the time and so when he eventually did play for his country, he was “proper emotional”, and his dad was in tears. “Things like that are always in my mind – why I want to achieve these dreams,” Thomas adds. “There are always people above you.”

These words have further poignancy, and we come to the reason soon. First, though, Thomas delves with relish into the mechanics of being an amputee goalkeeper.

“If you have an arm deficiency, you’ve got to be a goalkeeper. If it’s leg deficiency, outfield. I could technically be either but I could never use crutches…and I love goalkeeping. Get me in nets, take shots at me. It sounds crazy but I enjoy people smashing the ball as hard as they can.

“People from outside the game might look at an amputee goalkeeper and say that, if he doesn’t have a hand on his left arm, they’ll shoot that side. But saving on that side is probably my favourite side.

“You can’t leave your area, so being a Pep Guardiola sweeper keeper is impossible. I work on my agility a lot. I’m more of a flashy, quick saver. I play a lot with my feet like a modern goalkeeper too. There’s a lot of quick footwork and the ball gets moved around quickly. It’s been said that a lot of amputee players on crutches are faster than football players on two legs and I wouldn’t even question that. There’s a lot of scanning, a lot of communication.”

Atkinson says he admires the “cocky, crazy” persona of Everton and England No1 Jordan Pickford but wants to make his own name rather than emulate others. He adds that, in amputee football, England still has distance to travel to match leading nations like Poland and Turkey. He says the growth of social media has helped spread the word, likewise the way Marcin Oleksy, a Polish amputee player, won the FIFA Puskas Award for a spectacular scissor-kick goal.

“More fans are watching it online. Some people expect it to be a more touchy-feely sport, but it’s proper rough – it surprises them,” he says. “There’s a lot more exposure through things like TikTok which has helped the sport so much.

News and Star: Thomas shows a goalkeeping glove displaying the word 'Jack' in memory of his close friend Jack GrieveThomas shows a goalkeeping glove displaying the word 'Jack' in memory of his close friend Jack Grieve (Image: News & Star)

“You do get some funny comments like, ‘When’s the second leg?’ or ‘Zero rating with your right foot’. I laugh at some of them. It might mean someone else will see it if someone’s commented on it or tagged his mate. The more eyes on the sport will show how good it is.”

Atkinson’s involvement in England’s Nations League success this summer propelled his profile even further and he is starting to appreciate his status as a recognisable figure in the sport. I say his story will inspire other boys and girls, and Atkinson says: “It never felt like that, but I was on holiday the other week and two kids came up for a photo. That was unreal. It’s hard to put into words how proud that makes you.

“Ten years ago, some top disability athletes could walk down the street and not be recognised. Now people are getting more awareness, and I’m one of the people who’s been able to get hold of that. It’s benefited me so much.”

Atkinson is proud to fly the flag for his home city and county. “If I achieve something, Carlisle’s achieved something. I’m proud to be from Carlisle, proud to be Cumbrian.

“I also think coming from here has helped. If I was Thomas Atkinson from London I don’t think the coverage I’d get would be half as much. Coming from Carlisle, which isn’t blessed with amazing facilities or a million people coming through the system, has meant I’ve had to do it a different way.”

We head into the garden for photos and Atkinson brings out a pair of his white goalkeeping gloves. Embossed on one of them is the word ‘Jack’, and this leads us to one of the most meaningful and moving parts of his story.

Jack is Jack Grieve, one of Atkinson’s best friends. He wants to explain how his tragic death last year has affected him, and left him determined to honour his memory.

“I haven’t talked about this before, but it’s really important to me,” he says as we sit back down.

“Jack was never sick, always healthy,” he continues. “We were in the same class at the start of school, realised we were both from Belle Vue, and from then we were inseparable. After we met he really got into football, and I felt I enjoyed the game more because he was my best mate.

News and Star: Jack Grieve tragically died last summer aged 18. Every single one of my gloves has his name on and during the anthems I hold it to my heart, says England Amputee keeper Thomas AtkinsonJack Grieve tragically died last summer aged 18. Every single one of my gloves has his name on and during the anthems I hold it to my heart, says England Amputee keeper Thomas Atkinson (Image: Submitted)

“Last August he was walking home from a night out, fell and hit his head in the wrong place. He was in critical care. I remember being on my way back from football, sending him texts, saying, ‘Let us know when you’re ok’. I was then at work and one of the girls I know said he’d died. There was never a point when I thought that was going to happen.

“It was an absolute bombshell. I wasn’t at an age where I felt I should be attending my friend’s funeral. It was a big reality check in life to say that, no matter what’s going on, it can be taken away, and that good things don’t always happen to good people.

“By Caldew Lea there’s a little plaque, and sometimes flowers are laid there. That’s for him.”

Also for Jack, who was 18, is the personal way Atkinson remembers him. “Every single one of my gloves has his name on. It was the World Cup that summer and during the anthems I held it to my heart. I’ll always do that.”

Atkinson says Jack’s family watch his football progress with pride. “His dad follows everything I do, leaves comments on Facebook and talks about what me and Jack would be doing. It means a lot.”

What does he think Jack would make of his latest achievements and aspirations? “That’s what I’d love to know,” Atkinson says. “I’d imagine he would be proud of me. We were so close, but I’d just love to know the way he’d word it. ‘That’s pure class’ – something like that.

“Just like with my grandad, I really want Jack to know what I’m doing.”

These special thoughts will travel with Atkinson to Poland, and add further fuel to his desire to make the most of his dreams with club and country. “I might have won the Nations league, but I want to win the Euros, the World Cup. I want more accolades,” he says.

“I want to come away from football thinking there isn’t a stone I left unturned. I didn’t want to look back in 20 years and think I knocked back the chance of going to Poland to pay professionally. I want to have a great time, play against new teams, get new exposure. It’s part of the process of trying to achieve everything I can.”