Queen’s Birthday Honours announced – Tony Larkin awarded OBE!
We are delighted to announce that, our former Director and pioneer of GB Blind Football, Tony Larkin was mentioned in the Queen’s birthday honours, awarded with an OBE for his dedication to services in Further Education and disability sport. He has been instrumental in developing vocational pathways for students with visual impairment, having worked with us at RNC (Royal National College for the Blind) for the past 28 years.
After hearing the news of the prestigious honour, he said “I was taken aback when I found out that I was being awarded an OBE, really emotional. It’s made me reflect on how much support I received from RNC; they have always given me the opportunity to play to my strengths and to be able to develop visually impaired sport.”
Tony is originally from Toxteth, Liverpool, and growing up he always dreamed of being a professional footballer. He played for Liverpool schoolboys and was on the books for Everton before he signed his first professional contract with Wrexham in 1975, at the age of 19. Hereford United was the last club that Tony played for when he finished his professional football career in 1988 and shortly after this he started working as a Leisure Coordinator at RNC, incorporating blind football into student activities. He quickly realised the potential within the students and developed links with IBSA, becoming a member of their sub-committee in 1995. “Blind football was played across the world but everyone was playing with different rules and we wanted to standardise play so everyone could compete together. We had one aim – to make blind football a Paralympic sport.” The FA came on board in 1999 and provided the much needed financial backing for blind and disability football. After Tony led the England Blind Football Team to nine European championships and five world championships, the world took notice when the GB Blind Football made their debut at the Paralympics in Beijing, 2008. “I was so proud of realising our dream – our blind footballers were being recognised as elite athletes on an international stage.”
Tony stresses the importance of physical exercise for everyone – not jest elite athletes. “I’ve always looked at sport as an opportunity to have a go at something. Sport and movement is important for mobility, spatial awareness, confidence and self-esteem. The RNC Sports Academy gives students with visual impairment the chance to take part in sport at a grassroots level, building up to local, national and even international level; the same pathways that people in mainstream sport would take. There is no such thing as ‘can’t’ because with the right adaptions, people with disabilities can be engaged in sport.”
As well as football, Tony has been keen to promote all sports available for people with visual impairment and was pivotal in the launch of RNC’s Sports Academy specifically for people with visual impairment; the first of its kind in the UK, which officially opened in 2014 with Tony being. At the launch of the Sports Academy (which was also the draw for Euro 2015), we were joined by other ambassadors Danny Mills (former England defender) and broadcaster Des Kelly (pictured above with Tony and thePoint4 Manager Chris Combe).
Tony reminisces to 10 years ago where recognised we needed something more to advance the work-based learning offering. “I had a dream to build a world class facility for the sport, education and residential offering at RNC. I knew it was really ambitious but I knew we could do it, the College has always moved with the times and this is what we needed moving forwards.” Tony says that the College came together and worked as a team to put in bids for funding and cites the Learning Skills Council, Advantage West Midlands and The Football Foundation as just some of the benefactors who provided valuable funds to realise his vision. “The public have always embraced the College ever since it moved to Hereford in 1978 but the public really got to know us when we opened up thePoint4 in 2009. They have been so supportive of the College and myself in developing blind football. We hosted the World Blind Football Championships in 2010 and most recently in 2015 we hosted the European Blind Football Championships and the local community really came together for these events.”
Tony, who retired in January 2016, cannot tear himself away from football. “I’m still delivering football coaching at St George’s Park on behalf of the FA; it still feels weird delivering it on the pitch with my name on!” Tony was celebrated in 2014 when the official FA centre, St George’s Park, named one of their training pitches in his honour.
60 year old Tony is also supporting Jon Pugh with an upcoming Blind Football camp and instructs up to 14 spin classes a week at thePoint4! “Fitness and health is important and I believe that mental activity keeps you alert – I’ve had two hip and one knee replacement and I’m still going!”
RNC Principal Mark Fisher said “Congratulations to Tony on this well-deserved honour which reflects a remarkable career dedicated to empowering people with a visual impairment through sport and education!” Tony cites that as well as support from RNC, his family were always behind him “During my career there’s been evenings and weekends away and I’ve had to sacrifice a lot. I’ve done this knowing that I’ve had the support of my wife Rita and the girls – we’ve always been a close-knit family and they’ve been there for me through everything. “ Following in their father’s footsteps, Tony’s daughters have forged careers within the sports and complementary therapy industries; Jo as a consultant doctor currently working with the England men’s and women’s Rugby Sevens and Sam as the lead doctor in charge of a beauty therapy and cosmetics clinic.
After receiving the OBE for his dedication to sport and education, Tony says “I always believe that dreams can happen but I didn’t dream that I would get an OBE!”
Article written by Bik Lee, Digital Media Officer at RNC