‘We don’t talk about disabilities. We talk about football’

If you had a setback in life like Simon Baker, you’d hope to react in a similar way; with a kick.

After a dark period marked by heavy medication and failed surgical procedures, he made the call himself and decided to have a leg amputated below the knee.

Afterwards, as is understandable, Baker sunk into depression — or “a lot of doom and gloom and one thing and another” he tells me this week.

Ultimately however he picked himself up and hit the roads, only stopping as he strode through the finish line in the Dublin City Marathon, breasting a Guinness World Record as a Brucie bonus (fastest marathon on crutches on one leg, since you ask).

Not bad at all.

“And then after I finished the marathon I realised I wanted to get into some sport as an amputee,” Baker says.

“And I didn’t fancy getting in a wheelchair. Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with a wheelchair but I just didn’t fancy it myself. So I did a bit of research and found out there was such a thing as amputee football and it was played on the one leg, blah blah blah,” he goes on.

You get the impression he’s not particularly interested in accentuating the differences between amputee football and the football the rest of us play and watch. It’s all just football.

After calls and meetings with the FAI, amputee.ie and other like-minded souls, they established the Irish Amputee Football Association of Ireland. Next week they’ll celebrate their first anniversary.

And with a bit of luck, they’ll be toasting their birthday with a new cup — this morning they fly out to England for their first international tournament. The IAFA will play the more experienced trio of Poland, Germany and England in a four-nations tournament. It’s a massive step forward.

“The difference is... the football we play is played on crutches with one leg,” says Baker when I ask a stupid question about the game. “To be honest with you — and football players will tell you — it’s hard enough to play with two legs.”

You’re preaching to the converted there, brother.

“To play with one leg... you know yourself,” he continues, “the rules are simple. You’re not allowed to use your prosthesis, you’re not allowed to control the ball with your stump — or your residual limb, as they call it.

“You can’t control it with the crutches. If it hits off the crutches accidentally, that’s okay, but if you hit the ball with the crutch it’s a free kick. If you keep doing it, it’s a foul. I mean, this is a serious sport.

“The World Cup is this year, in Russia. Now I don’t think we’ll actually be ready to go because it’s invitation only. But put it this way, I’ve approached them and if it’s a case of funds then it’s up to us.

“This is a long-term project, it’s not just a thing where a couple of lads are having a kick around at the weekend. It’s a sport that I hope when we come back from England will grow.”

Just 12 months ago the side started with less than a team: six names on the training ground. Now there’s a panel of 24 that crisscross the country weekly for training sessions.

“There’s James Boyle, he drives down from Donegal — well his dad does — he’s 14, he’s our star player and one for the future,” says Baker as he rattles through the names in the panel like a proud father himself.

“I’m the oldest I suppose — I’m 45 and will be hanging up the crutches soon. I’m the ugly fella at the back who growls and grunts at people. That’s me.”

Then there’s a name some may remember from the League of Ireland. Christy McElligott lined out for St Pat’s, won Junior Cups with Ballymun.

“Six weeks after winning the League of Ireland title he was hit by a lorry and lost his leg. He was at the pinnacle of his career. But we don’t talk about people’s disabilities. We talk about football,” says Baker.

“And I’ll be honest with you, I know some of them players nearly a year and I couldn’t tell you how they lost their legs.

“And I think that’s the beauty about it.”

* adrianjrussell@gmail.com Twitter: @adrianrussell

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