From death’s door to London 2012 hopeful

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A FORMER professional footballer from Milton Keynes is in with a chance of making a Great Britain Paralympics football team for London 2012 – five years after suffering extensive head injuries in an horrific car crash that killed one of his friends.

And he’s doing it without being able to head a football – because it could kill him.

Alistair Patrick-Heselton was 23 years-old when he was catapulted out of the windscreen of a car driven by Wingate & Finchley FC team-mate Simon Patterson as it smashed into barriers on the A40 in London in the early hours of September 10, 2006.

Patterson died at the scene – a week after turning 24 – while Heselton was thrown from the car and landed on his head in the road, fracturing his skull and leaving him in a coma. Another passenger in the car was also badly injured.

Doctors thought Heselton would suffer severe brain damage and would probably never play football again.

However, he left hospital just a few weeks after the crash, and is now on the path to representing his country at the Paralympics with the GB Cerebral Palsy Football Team.

He’s now doing so having gone more than four years without even kicking a ball, and plays knowing that a serious blow to the head could even kill him.

Heselton began his short football career as a schoolboy at Wycombe Wanderers before going through the ranks at QPR where he was starting to make a name for himself playing in the west London club’s reserve team under boss Iain Dowie.

He then had a brief loan spell at Oldham under the same boss before suffering a cruciate ligament injury, and was released by parent club QPR – then under Ian Holloway – at the end of his contract.

Heselton spent a couple of years playing non-League football for a host of clubs in the south east, including then Conference South side Bishop’s Stortford, before joining Wingate & Finchley in 2006.

However, his time with the north London outfit would be brief as, after a night out, he got in the car with former Watford trainee Patterson, and the crash left him and another passenger seriously injured. Heselton says he remembers nothing of the accident, just waking up in hospital to be told what had happened.

After making what was described by doctors as a miraculous recovery from his injuries, Heselton took their advice and gave up football, instead focusing on starting a business career.

He trained as a quantity surveyor, but eventually followed his passion for cars and bought a franchise with vehicle wrapping company Total Dynamic, based in Newport Pagnell.

Although he completely gave up football, Heselton remained in contact with the Football Association and was told he qualified to play for England’s Cerebral Palsy Football Team.

He tentatively went along for his first training session in early 2010 and quickly became a regular in the seven-a-side team and took part in the 2011 Cerebral Palsy World Cup in the Netherlands, scoring on his debut.

But while that tournament didn’t quite go to plan for England, Heselton rekindled his love affair with the beautiful game and now plays regularly for both his country and local West Midlands team, wearing protective headwear.

“I have to take all the corners because I can’t risk heading the ball,” he explained. “Obviously there is an element of risk, and anyone could elbow me in the head at any time, but I love playing. The doctors told me that I could head the ball 10 times and be fine, but I could also do it once and be in trouble.”

He admits that, having spent so much time away from playing, it was a tough decision to get back out on the field, but one he’s glade he made.

“I soon found I still had a pretty good touch,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m the best player in the team because we have some great players, including the golden boot winner in the World Cup. But it’s just great to kick a ball about again.”

Heselton is part of the Great Britain squad preparing for final trials ahead of next year’s Games. Although he isn’t yet confirmed in the 12-man squad, he does stand a very good chance given his professional experience.

Indeed it’s that experience which has even led to criticism of him playing in the team, and he has been restricted to less game time than he would have liked because people have questioned his suitability for the team.

Heselton is in the Cerebral Palsy Class 8 category – the minimal impairment standard class, with 1 the most severely disabled. Only two Class 8 players are allowed in the team – which includes class 5-8 players – at any one time, but Heselton only needs to point to his brain scans as proof that he qualifies to play.

“I have to live with screws in my head but technically I’m the least impaired,” he said. “So there was some controversy about me playing which really upset me.”

“There was great deliberation by the classification doctors due to me kicking well with both feet, and my extensive efforts in my recovery have gone a long way to mask my impairments.”

Now Heselton has his sights set on London 2012, provided he makes the cut from 15 to the final 12, set to be decided next March. And if picked, representing his country in the greatest show on earth would complete an incredible story for the man who puts his life at risk every time he takes to the field.

Heselton now balances a successful business career with representing his country, made possible with the help of the Jaguar Academy of Sport who allow him to focus on both, with the sport’s World Championships in Manchester coming up before the Paralympics.

“It was a difficult decision to get back into football because of the agony my family had to go through and I certainly don’t take anything for granted,” he said.