Fast, technical and played with sheer determination.
That’s probably an accurate description of amputee football.
First established in the United States in 1980, the sport — now played by 30 nations worldwide — is being tipped to become a Paralympics sport at Rio 2016. And, thanks to the efforts of a few very dedicated stalwarts, Ireland now has a national team of its own.
At the weekend in Warsaw, the Irish amputee football team had an opportunity to test themselves against three of Europe’s best teams at a four-nation tournament organised by the Polish Amputee FA.
Unfortunately, any hopes of rectifying the sombre results inflicted upon our ‘other’ Irish team in Poland earlier this summer were soon dashed. The Irish amputee team — a relative newcomer to the sport, having only being founded last year — suffered three tough defeats against hosts Poland, Ukraine and an experienced England side.
Yet, this wasn’t a case of Poznan and Gdansk all over again. Lessons were learnt, and, according to player-coach Christy McElliot, the players remain upbeat, adding: “We know where we need to go from here.” Indeed, the team’s management is not afraid to blood new talent — four debutants featured in the Warsaw showdown.
Somewhat different to standard FA football, seven-a-side teams play matches lasting 50 minutes in total. The pitch is smaller, but there are two key stipulations: outfield players must only have one leg and goalkeepers, one arm. Also, the use of any prosthetic limbs is prohibited. Sounds tough? It is. “Upper body and core strength are very important. It’s not a slow sport,” says Irish head coach Kevin Brady.
“It’s a sport you need to see in order to appreciate it,” says Simon Baker, a Londoner living in Limerick, and the catalyst behind the establishment of the Irish Amputee FA. “In our last match against England in March, I got the man-of-the-match award, a yellow card and a black eye.”
Baker first approached the FAI in late 2010 with the idea of establishing a team and recruiting players. Eight months later, in April 2011, and “after a lot of meetings”, says Baker, the Irish Amputee Football Association was born thanks to support from the FAI’s ‘Football For All’ initiative.
The Londoner then approached bookmaker Paddy Power and asked if he would consider sponsoring the team. A trip to a training session at UCD convinced Power to get behind the squad.
“The skill level was impressive. And, when you see them representing their country, it’s inspirational,” says Paddy Power, whose company has supplied kits, tracksuits and to date funded an elite gym training session at University of Limerick’s sports arena.
Last weekend’s three defeats in the clammy heat of the Polish capital have not managed to dampen team spirit. “We’re very professional about what we’re doing. We’re not a social team. We’re here to learn what it takes to become one of the top teams in the world,” adds McElliott.
Playing at a competitive level is not new to McElliot. The Ballymun native played professionally for St Pat’s between 1990 and 1998, picking up a League of Ireland winners’ medal in 1996 during Pat Dolan’s reign at the Inchicore club, and winning a junior international cap for Ireland before ending his career at Monaghan United.
Then, in August 2000, whilst working as a truck driver, he was involved in a head-on collision with another truck on the N80 between Carlow and Wexford. McElliot lost his right leg as a result of the accident. Naturally, football seemed a thing of the past.
However, the joint efforts of Simon Baker and the FAI’s Oisín Jordan, coordinator of the FAI’s ‘Football For All’ programme convinced McElliot to get back on the field of play in 2011.
“I liked what they presented, and I bit the bullet,” says McElliot.
“Some of the lads have been through cancer. We don’t talk about losing limbs. It’s about playing football,” says Baker, the charismatic Londoner who also has a penchant for long distanced running.
A plasterer by trade, Baker had moved to Ireland from the UK in 1997. In 2001, he fell 15 feet from a roof whilst working, breaking his right leg in countless places. Twenty-two weeks in hospital and eight operations later, he accepted that amputating his right leg was his only option.
Team captain David Saunders, who hails from a GAA family in Rathmore, Co. Kerry, contacted the association after googling the net in search of amputee sports in Ireland.
“I was blown away by the commitment and skill of the sport,” says Saunders who is a schoolteacher in Lucan, Co Dublin.
Having suffered from bone cancer as a child, one of his legs was amputated at the age of 11.
Like the rest of the squad, Saunders is committed for the long haul, despite the three defeats in Warsaw. “We have to take stock of where we’re at and try to improve. We’re going to have an AGM and discuss the possibility of training more regularly,” says Saunders.
Team coach Kevin Brady believes that the future development of the sport’s success depends largely upon the availability of facilities and resources. “In Poland, with Euro 2012, a lot of money has been spent on amputee football by the government, which we don’t quite have back home in Ireland yet,” he says.
The association hopes to establish a four-team provincial league so that players from across the country can access the sport. At present, players travel long distances to make training sessions in Dublin every second Saturday.
McElliot now has his sights set on recruiting new talent throughout Ireland. “Amputee football is about setting something in stone so that young amputees have something to look forward to,” says the former St Pat’s man.
The Russian city of Kaliningrad will host the 2012 Amputee Football World Cup from October 6 to October 15. The Irish team won’t be there but will have their eyes set on competing at the next World Cup, and to fly the flag at Rio in 2016 should the International Paralympic Committee adopt the sport.
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