Sohail Abbas has never let disability stop his pursuit of his life’s dream.
Keighley’s Sohail, 28, received world-wide media coverage in 2013 after being dubbed as ‘the world’s first wheelchair-bound football coach in the able-bodied game’.
He suffers from a condition called spinal muscular atrophy which ended his football career at the age of 13.
Eight years after the blaze of publicity, Sohail’s coaching career is beginning to blossom and he’s enjoying life as Silsden’s under 23s coach under boss Jacob Mistry alongside his new appointment as manager of ambitious Yorkshire Amateur League Supreme outfit Route One Rovers.
And that’s just the start of his long-term goals.
“Maybe in two-or-three years time I want to take over a semi-pro club,” Sohail tells Non League Yorkshire.
“I’ve stepped up slowly and Yorkshire Amateur League Supreme level with Route One is a good level for me as it is one of the best leagues outside of semi-pro.
“I’m hoping to get a shot at a semi-pro in the long term and it is about finding the right club.
“I don’t want to rush it.”
Sohail taken his time out of the limelight since the original articles.
He says that’s down to wanting to prove himself without the hype – which helped him develop connections with the likes of Jose Mourinho and Paul Pogba.
“What ended up happening in the early stages there was a whole load of interest in the ‘person in a wheelchair coaching football’,” he says.
“I then had to get away from that. I was always saying ‘I want to coach at the highest level’ and it got boring after a bit.
“People were like ‘yeah, yeah but you’re in a wheelchair, how are you going to coach’?
“Even with the Alex Ferguson letter, it made me think ‘I’m going to go all in with this’.
“But people were like ‘you’re got the letter, you must be made up, you’ve done what you needed to’.
“I always said I had to start from the bottom up.
“When all those articles were written in 2014 I had loads of offers from semi-pro clubs to take an under 18s or under 23s.
“But I was thinking ‘I am not capable of taking an under 23s or under 18s, I’m a kid’.
“So going into the amateur scene and trying to build was a better option.”
The first real chance to shine landed on his lap in November 2018.
Struggling Sporting Keighley in the Craven League Premier Division needed a manager and what followed was a whirlwind two years.
“The first proper opportunity was when Sporting Keighley said to me ‘here’s the team’,” he says.
“They were in the dire and going into Division One.
“I’d been going down and helping with training sessions but when they said ‘here’s the team, try do something with it’, that’s when I thought ‘this is my opportunity and my chance’.
“Last season when it got voided we were in the Keighley Cup semi-final against Oxenhope and I felt we were going to win the cup.
“We’d beaten Steeton in the round before and we were playing great football.
“I had people coming up to me and saying ‘don’t how you’ve done what you have done with these’ and that’s when you know you are pushing on.
“In the last two weeks I took over Route One Rovers and they have ambitions to go higher and become semi-pro.
“I came in at Sporting Keighley when they were fighting relegation from the Premier Division in the Craven League.
“We changed everything – the training, the lot. You know how amateur football is, they literally just turn up on a Saturday after going out on the Friday night.
“In those two years we got the club’s highest finishes for a while and got to some semi-finals.
“We thought the club was folding when we took it on but we steadied and left it in a good position.”
Sohail has spent a lot of time visiting the training grounds of various leading English football clubs – most notably Chelsea and Manchester United.
Both allowed him to meet one of the most successful managers in Premier League history.
“I have been very lucky networking-wise,” he says.
“When Jose Mourinho was in Manchester I had a good relationship with him and through his certain people on his coaching staff I got close with him.
“I knew the standards he has and the level of coaching were of a standard I could adapt or put into my teams but it was an opportunity where I could learn.
“He was a major help and that’s helped me to get to know people like Paul (Pogba) and others.
“I met Petr Cech at a Kick It Out event at Wembley when he was Chelsea and he invited me down to watch them train.
“I went down and I’ve still got the picture where I met Mourinho for the first time.
“It was just a brief conversation where he asked me what my ambitions were.
“He got sacked from Chelsea (in 2015) and then when he came to Manchester I met him at the games and he was asking me how I was doing with my coaching badges.
“He let me come to a few first team training sessions to observe.
“The one thing with Mourinho is; he’d come and ask you questions afterwards and after I’ve answer them he’d explain things.
“It was just amazing to see a man out like that take that kind of time out.
“Even this year, the rubbish year we’ve had, I got a video message from him on my birthday which I couldn’t believe.
“The Jose Mourinho on TV I saw when I was growing up and who I thought would be difficult to speak to is a completely different individual. But he’s another person who if I need any advice he’s there for me.”
The door to Silsden’s under 23s opened last year. Quite predictively Sohail knew Danny Forrest and even the club captain Josh Kaine as he did his FA Level One qualification with him.
“I’ve always been in contact with Danny and when it comes to the semi-pro scene, I look at Danny and he’s probably one of the best coaches I’ve seen,” he says.
“Just because of how professional he is and how he has got Silsden training twice a week. The sessions are so intense.
“I think Danny’s sessions are the closest you can get at semi-pro to professional level. They are that good.
“Through speaking to Danny this opportunity at Silsden came. I had helped him a bit with recruitment and then the chance to help the under 23s came.
“He wanted to build a setup where he has a good group of youngsters coming through.
“I can recruit really well so he asked if I could help with the under 23s. I got involved and myself and Jacob have a great understanding and relationship. We are a perfect fit.
“He is really hands-on with how he wants his teams to play.
“We’ve not gone away from the way we want to play and that we want players to progress.
“We have three or four in the first team now – Robbie Fox, Harry Parsons and even Luke Gardner who is only 16 but has had a taste of first team football.
“Silsden is the perfect setup.”
Many probably thought he wouldn’t get this far so who knows what the future holds.
If you have enjoyed reading Non League Yorkshire over the past few months, please consider making a donation to the not-for-profit organisation NLY Community Sport which provides sport for children and adults with disabilities and learning difficulties. CLICK HERE to visit the JustGiving page. There is a video at the bottom of the page showing our work.
NLY Community Sport, run by James Grayson and Connor Rollinson, has always had combatting social isolation at the top of our objectives when running our Disability Football teams. When we properly return to ‘action’, our work will play an important role in reintroducing our players, who have disabilities and learning difficulties, back into society.
We have six teams, a mixture of Junior and Adult teams – Nostell MW DFC, Pontefract Pirates, Selby Disability Football Club and the South Yorkshire Superheroes (Barnsley) – across Yorkshire.
We have enjoyed great success over the past three years. Several of our players have represented Mencap GB in Geneva, including Billy Hobson from Selby and Greg Smith, whose story is quite inspiring.
Watch the video below to see highlights from our three years as an organisation. The video was produced for our players at the end of March to remind them of good memories from the last three years.