In six months' time Cory Leighton will be lacing up his boots in Turkey ahead of some of the biggest football matches of his career. He'll be representing his country at European level – a dream he's chased for years from growing up in Merthyr Tydfil to the northeast of England and across the continent.

But his journey started when he was barely a year old and was diagnosed as profoundly deaf. After failing hearing tests at eight months old his family knew he had an issue with his hearing but they didn't realise he wouldn't speak until age six.

A cochlear implant was the obvious solution but the process of getting one wasn't easy. Cory's mum Natalie said: "He didn't react very well to the switch-on. He completely freaked out and threw it off so we took him back to get it tuned in very finely and turned down. Then we had to go on learning walks – [hearing] things that we take for granted. The toilet flushing, a bird singing, a phone ringing, a door creaking."

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Cory's school supported him brilliantly but it was a challenge to find a specialist speech therapist to work with. Natalie said she "battled and battled" to get that support outside school.

Cory said: "It wasn't easy to start off with because I had to start from scratch. It took me a long time to get an understanding of hearing stuff. Throughout my life it's been improving and from the start to now has been a massive improvement. I went from basics to reading books aloud. I can hear everything now."

Cory, wearing Wales jersey, sits with arms folded in stands
Cory wanted to share his journey and help kids feel confident about getting a cochlear implant
Closeup of cochlear implant on Cory's head as he looks to one side
'I don't think I'd be able to get this far without the cochlear implant'

There have been challenges – for instance Cory has to focus that little bit harder to hear and understand his peers – but since adapting to his implant he's gone from strength to strength. He passed all his GCSEs, got a distinction at college, and after an apprenticeship he's working as an aircraft engineer – taking after his father.

But since a young age football has been his real passion. "I've always been playing football," he said. "With the cochlear implant I'm not allowed to do any sports like rugby or boxing. At one point in my life I wanted to train as a boxer but I couldn't do anything like that. I had a difficult upbringing with stuff like that but I always enjoy and love football."

After playing for a local Cardiff deaf team at 12 Cory ended up being a free agent until 19 because there simply wasn't the funding for deaf clubs. From there he started making the relatively short journey across the Severn to play for Bristol City but soon found himself travelling cross-country up to Newcastle after signing for Washington, a deaf team in the northeast of England.

There he got his first taste of Deaf Champions League football. But his eyes remained firmly on the true prize – a Wales cap. Now playing for Barnet, in London, he's earned the call-up. Against Scotland he finally realised his dream – making his debut with the dragon on his shirt and getting a goal to boot.

"I feel more comfortable playing deaf football because I’m around my deaf friends and part of that community," he said. Playing hearing football Cory has to make doubly sure he can hear what his teammates are shouting – and his mum tells him not to head the ball, although he still does anyway.

In deaf football, though, the implant is switched off, so it's a level playing field. He added: "I'm more confident because everyone is the same as me. In hearing football people have to shout loud for me and wind and rain can affect the implant."

Cory, wearing number 10, on the ball in full Wales kit
Cory's Wales debut came in a friendly against Scotland
Cory runs towards crowd after scoring
He got a goal and is hoping for more in Turkey

Playing for Wales, he said, means he's representing on two fronts – not only is he playing on behalf of his country but on behalf of the deaf community too. "Playing for Wales is a massive achievement in my life," he said. "You can feel the atmosphere – especially my first game against Scotland where there were loads of people there watching. It was a phenomenal experience with all my family and friends there. The friends were amazing – and we had the mascot, the national anthem, everything.

"It was the best feeling ever. It pushes my football career too because I get clubs asking me to come to them."

Since his debut he's gone on to play in a 2-1 win over Ireland and a 2-2 draw with England. In October he finally got the call he'd been hoping for. He's in the squad for Wales' trip to Turkey for the European Deaf Football Championship. The trips to Newcastle, the years of adjusting to the implant – this is the culmination.

"I don't think I'd be able to get this far without the cochlear implant to be honest," said Cory. "I just want to raise awareness of that."

Natalie is full of praise for Ynysowen Community Primary School, which Cory attended, and his learning support assistant Jackie Jones. "Any issues they had the school and its hearing-impaired unit were constantly in contact with us," she said. "The school was amazing, making sure he had the correct processor he needed and he was wearing it. They signed with him, which at the beginning I suppose I was in denial of, which was hard.

"But we had to communicate through some way before he had the implant and to bridge the gap after it. He didn't have any speech until he was about six."

She also has advice for other parents. "It's a long process and it's a scary process as well because you are making a massive decision for your child. You think: 'Am I making the right decision?

"And I know at the age of 15 Cory was like: 'Why did you let me have it? I want to do boxing. I want to do rugby.' And I'd wonder if I'd done the right thing. But as long as you've got the right support around you just do it. It's made such an impact to our lives and without him having it, like he says, he probably wouldn't be where he is today."