Natalie O’Rourke MBE talks to Louise Wates about how playing football has been a turning point for her son Woody, who has Down syndrome – and how it almost never happened.

Natalie O’Rourke works with Riding for the Disabled (RDA) at Park Lane Stables in Teddington, southwest London, which she initially started up with some ‘pavement ponies’.

She has an MBE for services to the disabled and to the community of Teddington, and in May her life story, Only Heroes and Horses, was published.

But today we’re talking about her son, Woody.

It wasn't too much later that Woody went viral

This is, by the way, a friendly chat. I’ve known Natalie since 2014. So I do know Woody, but haven’t seen him for a while.

Although he’s nine, I particularly remember him as a joyful toddler. Like many children born with Down syndrome, health issues meant he was often in and out of hospital.

Whenever I saw him, though, whether happy or sad, he always faced life with great gusto that was contagious.

Brentford FC supporter

Woody has been on quite the rollercoaster recently. Natalie explains that it all started during the 2018 World Cup.

“He’s not great at watching on the [TV] screen but he picked up an interest in football,” she says. “And at school, children must have been talking about football and Harry Kane.”

Although Woody couldn’t really talk at the time — he doesn’t have the same verbal skills as other children his age — he signed ‘football’.

Natalie and her best friend, Jenny, debated which team Woody should follow, and eventually chose Brentford — their local team.

“When you’ve got a child with disability, you have to make decisions for them a lot of the time,” says Natalie. “This was a big one — what football team to support!”

When they told Woody ‘you’re Brentford’ he signed back ‘Brentford’ in response. Later, with a Brentford shirt with his name on the back “the Brentford thing was born”.

It wasn’t too much later that Woody went viral.

Left out at school

When another mum casually mentioned that her son was playing football at the weekend, Natalie wondered why she hadn’t been contacted, because Woody’s name was also on the list.

“I contacted the man and he was, basically like, no Woody can’t come, I can’t take him.”

No reasons were given, and Natalie describes it as “a real kick in the teeth because he really wanted to do it”.

Saddened, she took to social media. “I wrote on Facebook, to my friends just to vent, ‘I feel really sorry for the man that won’t let Woody in the football club because he’ll never experience the joy that Woody would have given him’.”

The following day her post had a few thousand shares. Then when somebody asked what Woody’s favourite team was and Natalie said Brentford, somebody else tagged Brentford FC’s fan engagement manager Ryan Murrant.

Murrant contacted Natalie, and by the afternoon Woody was being driven to Brentford so that he could lead the team out onto the Brentford pitch.

Looking back on it now, it was the start of a turning point in his life — and my life...

Playing with Brentford FC

Today, football is Woody’s passion and he plays with Brentford FC Penguins, a team for young people with Down syndrome, run by ex-Brentford player Allan Cockram.

“Looking back on it now, it was the start of a turning point in his life — and my life — because it has given us complete structure,” says Natalie.

As well as being part of a ‘family’ of Brentford fans, he’s also gained friends at school.

“I think [football’s] like an international language,” she says. Regardless of his verbal skills, Woody can kick a ball and let off steam with other children.

“For Woody it’s like a sensory explosion because everyone’s shouting. Most of the time kids like Woody get told ‘indoor voice, be quiet’.

“[At football] you can shout your head off if you want; shout your head off all afternoon — imagine that! And everyone else is shouting as well.

“What he can feel, which I think is the most important thing, is the atmosphere. And he feels the same passion that every single other person feels.”

Inclusion in sport

Working with RDA and having a disabled child, Natalie is well aware of the issues parents face trying to get their child included. But she believes it’s always worth trying.

Where inclusion is possible, the benefits are “enormous”, she adds. “They learn to take turns. They learn to work with others in a team. Obviously, they’re physically exercising, which is really important for all of us.”

It’s also been great for his education. “It’s given us a focus so, for example, in the lockdown: home schooling — horrible.

“But I taught him numbers from Brentford, because I taught him Sergi Canós is number seven, Rico Henry is number three. If we add Sergi to Rico, what have we got? We’ve got 10.

“We’ve used it for teaching him to read and write because he’s motivated.

“He can tell you the flags of the world. He will tell you Portugal, Spain, Nigeria, so on, because that’s where the players come from. But if you tried to give him a geography lesson he wouldn’t care.”


Inclusion in sport was already a large part of Natalie’s life at the stables. She has also often encouraged friends and acquaintances to become active, and has even been a guide for blind runners.

To the less sporty among us it may be surprising that, despite her go-for-it attitude, Natalie does have moments of nervousness. But she is learning to “turn into the fear”.

“What’s the worst that can happen?” she says. “I always say if you exercise, I cannot guarantee that you will feel better, but I guarantee you won’t feel worse.”

And thanks to the beautiful game, this can now be true for Woody.

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