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Fridays are supposed to be Dave Connolly’s day off from his job as a geo-spatial analyst. But it rarely works that way.

“I spend most of my Fridays in meetings about football,” said Connolly, the Bilbies Australian men’s blind football team’s head coach and Blind Football Australia’s national coordinator.

“During the week I’m always using my lunch break and evenings following up on bits and pieces.

“I love doing it – probably too much, my wife and family might say. I’ve made an effort recently to not be ‘on’ all the time. But it’s hard because if I don’t follow things up, no one will. It’s just that kind of space.”

Connolly has spent the past decade building blind football in Australia from the ground up, navigating never-ending challenges away from the limelight and without financial reward. He is one of many volunteers who keep Para-sport functioning in Australia and we recognise this National Volunteer Week.

“Dave’s been the driver for the whole program,” Blind Sports Australia CEO Matt Clayton said.

“Our women’s, men’s and partially-sighted programs are all unfunded, but he finds a way to keep them growing.

“It takes tenacity and doggedness to continue to knock on doors. It takes time and energy, often at the expense of time with family, and it takes a lot of passion.”

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An example of that passion was when Connolly audio-described sessions of the Tokyo Paralympics blind football tournament.

“The games weren’t audio-described, so Dave did it himself and had the entire squad there on the Zoom call,” Clayton said.

“He wanted to make the players feel engaged and know there’s a pathway. They may not be able to physically see it, but Dave was able to give them a real sense of what they’re trying to achieve by being part of the program.”

Connolly aimed high in his own football career and reached the top level in his native Tasmania. After moving to Melbourne he started working in the disability space and came across blind football in a Blind Sports Victoria newsletter.

“I thought, ‘How haven’t I heard of this?’ I was intrigued and wanted to find out more,” he said. “I ended up getting involved and it hooked me in.”

The next year, Connolly travelled to the World Championships in Japan.

“That blew my mind. I just thought, ‘This sport is incredible’. I’m fully sighted and can’t do what some of these players were doing with the ball.

“The local stuff was the initial hook, but the World Champs made me wonder what I could do to help others get to that level.

“We didn’t have a national team or program at the time. But while I was in Japan I learnt a bit about how the sport’s run and made connections with people who wanted to help us get something off the ground in Australia.

“I took it to Blind Sports Australia and said I wanted to lead it and take it forward.”

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Connolly is grateful to Paralympics Australia for its support, which has included hosting team camps at its Melbourne headquarters. However, after competing at their first World Championship last year, the tough decision was made to not attend the IBSA World Games in England in August. Instead, Connolly is looking to arrange some friendlies with an Asian opponent later this year.

“If we had Football Australia support and a sponsor or two I believe we could have prepared to compete at the IBSA championships, which would have been a great opportunity for our athletes this far out from Brisbane,” he said.

“Otherwise it was going to cost about $150,000 to take a squad there and it was going to have to come out of everyone’s pocket.

“We are still a fairly long way behind the other teams who’ll be there so we had to consider what we’d actually gain from it in terms of our development. In the bigger picture, it just wasn’t right for us at the moment.”

Australian blind football has ground to make up, but Connolly has reason to be proud of what’s been achieved in a short time with very little backing. He’s convinced “it’s just the tip of the iceberg” for the game’s potential in this country.

“I’ve got these big ideas, things I see happening in other countries, but it comes down to funding and resources. That’s the juggling act.

“We’d like to get to that high performance level, Paralympic level. If I can do my little bit to help people play for their country then I think that’s pretty good.

“But sport is also about the friendships and connections you make and I’ve gained plenty of that through our sport. It’s giving people a chance to be active and connected.

“It makes me a better person and it also shows my kids the value of helping create an inclusive society. I think that’s a great outcome.”

By: David Sygall, Paralympics Australia
Posted: 15 May 2023