BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Football for all must be the goal

Chris McElligott probably didn’t need any reminders as to football’s extraordinary ability to inspire but he got it anyway last October when Turkey claimed the inaugural European Amputee Football Championship at a heaving Vodafone Park in Istanbul with a 2-1 defeat of England.

Photo Caption: Launching Bohemians’ Amputee soccer team at Dalymount Park were Christy McElligott, FAI Football For All community coach; players Amanda King and James Conroy; and Mícheál Mac Donncha, the Lord Mayor of Dublin. Picture: Gary Carr/Inpho

Turkish football had been in shock since the 3-0 defeat inflicted on the senior national side three days earlier in the city of Eskisehir. The loss scuppered the nation’s hopes of reaching this summer’s World Cup and, bad and all as the result and its consequences were, the tame manner of it was much worse.

The amputee tournament had been ticking along nicely at the Turkish FA’s training centre in Riva but when news of the host side’s 2-0 win against Poland in the semi-final circulated it became obvious that the final brushstrokes needed a bigger canvas. Here was a chance to erase the shame of Eskisehir.

Vodafone Park’s 42,000 capacity was met — the very next day — long before demand was satisfied. Turkey has 20 amputee football teams, their players are paid and one game features on live TV every week. This was big and the team rose to the occasion with captain Osman Cakmak, who lost his leg in a military operation, scoring the winner.

Some players celebrated by performing handstands on their crutches, a good number wept. The widespread frustration felt with their two-legged counterparts was momentarily forgotten. “From now on, keep an eye on amputees,” said Cakmak. “I am calling on all amputees to come out (and play).

So is McElligott.

You probably remember him from Operation Transformation a year ago but the Dubliner has plenty more strings to his bow. A former manager of the national side, he gave that up to go back playing this year. He is the development officer for the Irish Amputee Football Association and a coach with the FAI’s ‘Football for All’ Initiative. A busy man. Now more than ever.

McElligott will be in Midleton FC tomorrow, raising the inaugural Irish amputee football league off the ground with a soft launch before the three teams signed up to date — Shamrock Rovers, Bohemians and Cork City — convene in Dublin a few weeks down the line to kick off proper. There may yet be a fourth side.

McElligott played League of Ireland football under Brian Kerr at St Patrick’s Athletic and won a Junior FAI Cup with Ballymun FC and 26 Junior internationals caps before losing his right leg in a traffic accident 17 years ago. So, he knows plenty about football’s healing powers.

“I can only speak for me and how I dealt with it in that I managed to come through with a positive mental attitude. All my focus has always been on my ability and not the disability. I said no to amputee football when I lost my leg because I couldn’t grasp it but once I played it I was hooked, line and sinker.

“It’s all about the football. Most guys who play wouldn’t know what happened to the player next to them on the pitch. Don’t get me wrong, it is a great support network if people ever need it but the main thing that everyone has in common is the football — as well as being amputees.”

Simon Baker, a founder of the Irish Amputee Football Association in 2011 and a key player, summed up the ethos perfectly by explaining that players wanted pats on the back and not on the head. It’s a refrain that would be familiar to anyone with knowledge of the Paralympic movement.

There’s no database on the number of amputees in Ireland but it is a small community. There are 30-35 people playing football right now but likely many more who haven’t made contact. That’s understandable. Priority for those coming to terms with a lost limb is likely to be a prosthesis and how to use it.

Amputee football is played with crutches. It is a sport and that means bangs and bruises.

New players need time to get used to the blisters it provokes on the hands and, this being football, legs tend to take a bit of a kicking. Mastering the unique skills takes time too. Players, like McElligott, who lose their ‘good’ leg find it next to impossible to kick the ball through the laces and tend to rely instead on the outside of their boot.

“Every parent wants to protect their child and the idea of them playing football on crutches can be a daunting one. Amputees don’t want to be on crutches either. It’s hard work. We tell people the game isn’t about discarding your prosthesis, it’s about the football. What’s the first thing you do when you finish playing? You put your leg back on.”

The plan is for a league that bridges the span between new players and those already turning out, like McElligott, with a national side that finished sixth at those Euros in Turkey. It will be a recreational outlet for some, for others a springboard to the elite level of their sport. Football for all. “Exciting times,” says McElligott.

Email: Brendan.obrien@examiner.ie Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien


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