Like anyone, no Paralympian is born great whatever privileges and opportunities they are born into. But some Paralympians more than others have the chance of greatness thrust upon them, catching them entirely unawares.
Born into a family of Liverpool fanatics, Sean Highdale was picked up by the club at the age of nine and earmarked for big things. “I’d be kicking a ball about with my dad,” says Highdale, “and people would say to him: ‘Your boy’s gonna be some player.'” Maybe they were onto something. But would they find out?
Playing in the same Under-18s side as Tom Ince, Jay Spearing and Martin Kelly, Highdale won the FA Youth Cup in 2007. He also represented England Under-16s against Northern Ireland, playing alongside Jack Wilshere and Jack Rodwell, who now ply their trade for Bournemouth and Sunderland respectively.
After his last game for Liverpool’s academy, Highdale was told he would be moving to Melwood, the club’s main training facility, full time. Highdale, 16 at the time, heaved a happy sigh of relief: “Suddenly, that was my job.”
“I was very confident I could go as far as I wanted to go,” adds Highdale, a ball-playing midfielder. “It was April 2008 and I’d played very well against Derby. Twenty-four hours later, I was in a car crash with four of my friends.
“Two of my mates died, but I was one of the lucky ones. I snapped three of the four main ligaments in my right knee, broke my ankle and my neck, and had to have a kidney taken out. I was in a coma and didn’t wake up for five days.”
That’s the thing about luck, it doesn’t always look like you’d expect it to.
A month or so later, Liverpool arranged for Highdale to be transferred to a private hospital. Andy Williams, knee specialist to the stars, was called. Jamie Carragher, one of Highdale’s heroes, dropped in to raise the spirits. But Highdale’s spirits, temporarily raised, soon disappeared through the floor again.
“It was two years before I could even run,” says Highdale. “I used to go in and watch the lads train every day and it would break my heart. I’d stand there on the sidelines and think: ‘Could this ever be me again?'”
The doctors didn’t think so and thought it best to inform Highdale that his football career was over. But Highdale still wasn’t convinced.
Highdale’s biggest idol was Steven Gerrard – “every time we saw him play, my dad would say: ‘Watch how he moves, watch everything he does” – and one day the Liverpool captain invited the Highdale family to dinner at Melwood.
“We had a good chat and it gave me a boost,” says Highdale. “He was easy to speak to and we all came away thinking what a nice fella he was.”