Doing it for the kids
It's the dream of every football-loving dad to one day see his child play for the team he loves. For me it's a case of when, not if.
It's not that little Lois is being touted as the next Wayne Rooney (even Arsenal don't take on under-2s - yet) but having Down's syndrome, she qualifies to play for the QPR Tiger Cubs - a side made up entirely of children born with the condition.
Of course, Lois has to learn to walk first (at 23 months she has perfected the fine art of bum-shuffling) but when she reaches the magical age of seven, she'll be turning up at Tiger Cubs HQ decked out in the blue and white hoops - whether she wants to or not.
QPR are one of six football clubs in England who run teams for children with Down's syndrome - Fulham, Charlton, Manchester United, Hereford and West Ham make up the rest - and supporters of the scheme are confident these numbers will continue to grow.
Patricia James, corporate fundraising officer for the Down's Syndrome Association, said: "It all started when a colleague of mine spoke to Fulham in 2006 about disability football. A pilot scheme for the Fulham Badgers was launched later that year, and it got a fantastic response.
"We had been getting feedback from parents of children with Down's syndrome who couldn't find any sporting activity for them to do. Eighty five per cent of these children are enrolled in mainstream primary schools, but when it comes to physical activity they often get left on the sidelines because their oxygen intake is up to 40% less.
"With this initiative, the children are becoming more active and gaining confidence. It's also very important for their emotional and social development. Unlike sport in the mainstream schools, it's a level playing field for everyone and they can take what they learn on the training pitches into the classroom and everyday life."
QPR Community Trust chief executive Andy Evans, who oversees the Tiger Cubs, concurs. "It's been phenomenal," he said. "The kids get an incredible amount of satisfaction, a sense of belonging, and it provides a support network for the parents where they can share common experiences.
"I've heard stories of children in mainstream education being called up in assembly wearing their QPR kit and the whole school giving them a round of applause because they're playing for the Tiger Cubs."
Training sessions are held every Monday night and the most difficult task facing the coaches is getting the children to leave the pitch at the end.
Head coach Adam Finch explained: "We try to keep the sessions as energetic as we can and we also have a fundamental group where we concentrate more on the motor skills - running, skipping, jumping, that sort of stuff.
"It's fantastic, always good fun. Some football sessions can get a bit stale, but never with the Tiger Cubs. It's always new, fresh and exciting - and if the kids are excited, you can't help but get excited as well."
The scheme first came to my attention last year, when the team showed off their skills during a half-time display at Loftus Road. The crowd were right behind them, cheering every goal that went in, and the kids milked the applause that came their way.
I'd be lying if I said it didn't bring a tear to my eye, but it also made me realise that any preconceptions I had about Lois not being able to do the things other children took for granted were misplaced. Let's face it, after coming through major heart surgery at three months old and having to be fed through a tube for a year, kicking a football around should be a doddle.
We didn't know Lois (pictured right) was going to be born with Down's syndrome - in fact after the 12-week scan, the nurse confidently predicted there was a one in 8,000 chance - so when we found out it was a shock to say the least. But you learn to adapt and nearly two years on, I can honestly say I wouldn't have her any other way.
Birmingham City midfielder Lee Carsley, whose 11-year-old son, Connor, has Down's syndrome, agrees. "You can get burdened down with it or take it in your stride," he said. "Of course you still think about it every day but if you lay in bed worrying about it all night you'd never be able to get anything done.
"I treat all my kids the same - I'm no different to any other Dad. I love them all - although sometimes they can be a pain!"
Carsley is a tireless fundraiser in his role as patron of the Solihull Down's syndrome support group and is in talks with Birmingham's new owners about the possibility of setting up a team in the mould of the Tiger Cubs.
He said: "I think it's a really good thing for the kids and can only be beneficial. Connor goes on some football coaching classes but they're all at different levels and he sometimes gets left behind.
"He's proud of me and what I do but while my other kids understand my role, Connor's a bit of a glory hunter. He wants me to score a goal and that's it. It would break his heart if he knew I haven't scored many!"
Carsley's former Everton team-mate Kevin Kilbane is patron of the DSActive charity, encouraging children with Down's syndrome to get involved in sport, and is heavily involved in promoting teams like the Fulham Badgers and QPR Tiger Cubs.
The Hull midfielder, who won his 103rd cap for the Republic of Ireland against Brazil, has a five-year-old daughter, Elsie, with Down's syndrome, and handed out the medals when the Badgers and Cubs recently teamed up to play a visiting Hong Kong XI.
"It's a really important scheme and it's gaining momentum by the week," he said. "The work the team has put in has been phenomenal, but it would be great to get more kids involved. At the moment there's not that much competition for the children with Down's syndrome or any other disability and I'd love every club to one day have its own team."
As for Lois, she turns two on 9 April, meaning it will be a mere 1,825 days before I finally get the chance to see her in action for the Tiger Cubs. The first two years of her life have coincided with extraordinary goings-on at my club that have seen a succession of managers come and go, leaving a team tipped for promotion embroiled in a relegation battle.
The changing of the guard in the boardroom, coupled with the arrival of football's Mr Motivator, Neil Warnock, will hopefully steady the ship, although even Warnock would struggle to replicate the drive and enthusiasm shown by the Cubs.
Indeed some of the footballing prima donnas ticked off by England coach Fabio Capello last week could do worse than pop down to witness this unbridled passion first-hand. And not a WAG or a Ferrari in sight.
On 10 April, a few of us will be walking from QPR's Loftus Road ground to Crystal Palace's stadium at Selhurst Park - ahead of the game between the sides - to raise money for the Tiger Cubs. Find out more here.