by Andy Robinson
A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to spend a very enjoyable friday afternoon in the company of “The Bolton Bullitts”, a powerchair football club. The club began in 2007 when local football Development Officer and former professional with Blackburn Rovers and Everton Glen Keeley introduced the sport in a local school. With a number of powerchair users present at the school the benefits of taking part in a sport that they would have access to such as being a member of a team soon became clear. As the kids developed their skills they quickly formed the Bolton Bullets.
The game itself consists of four players to a team and unlike other forms of the game at youth level it isn’t divided by age group or sex but purely on ability. Essentially like in all sport the more you play and practice the better you get. This is how it works. The more experienced players have the speed of their chair increased to 9KM an hour and If you want to know how quick that is; it’s like a fork lift truck that’s caning it. The less experienced and new players run in at 6KM an hour. The first thing I noticed as I got to the Smithills Sports Centre in Bolton was a group of four having a knock about on their own at one side of the gym whilst the coaches took the less experienced players through their paces and some parents helped get the powerchairs ready. It was clear that the four lads off to the side were seriously good.
The preparation of the powerchairs was the one aspect of the sport that I found difficult to get my head around. You stand on the touchline of a field or sit at the side of a gym on a bench and you expect to see water bottles, first aid kits and bicycle pumps not tool kits and spannners and screwdrivers. A great effort by the parents getting the chairs ready for action but my sympathies were with the kids itching to get out there. The club has a store room at the centre for extra pieces of kit the most notable part being the “Bumper”. The Bumper, a semi – circular version of the type you might see on a four by four car attached to the bottom of the chair is what’s used for playing the ball. The footballs themselves are around 50% larger than what is seen in the standard game. The largest cost associated with the game is that of the chairs which can be as much as 4K and can come from a variety of sources such as local councils, disability charities and “The Cauldwell Trust”. The charity set up by notable philanthropist John Cauldwell the founder of “Phones 4 U”. Other income is generated by more familiar and traditional Sport Club activites such as the end of season “do”, a “quiz night” etc. Like all clubs one of the best aspects is the social side and over the years a close community has developed between the parents of the kids from various backgrounds. The club also has families travelling long distances to take part. One player comes from as far away as Kendal up in the Lake District.
Saajan one of the players is 21 and is currently at University studying Business Administration. He was in from the start and says it’s one of the best things he has had the chance to participate in. Like many of the players with the Bullets, as a child he had been able to play the natural version of the game. Saajan also thought I looked completely out of my depth when the coaches got me in a chair and let me have a try for five minutes. Seriously, it was like watching Scott Parker in an England shirt – the game just passed me by. The day of my visit was slightly unusual in that due to various reasons there was a low turnout of players but it was also the day that two new players had come for the first time. I had chats with both Dan and Steven. Both of them loved it and said they would be back again.
The afternoon’s training finished as always with a game of “Pirate”. Everyone will know this game – get a crowd, get a ball and chuck it at people. Last man standing wins. The rules are exactly the same even when you can only roll it at the wheels of a powerchair. God know why they call it “Murder Ball” though in Bolton.
During a discussion with Jack one of the coaches at the club I noticed that as he was describing the fundamentals of the game and its differences from the more familiar version I realised that I wasn’t really listening. The reason for this is simple. I am a fan. I was watching the football. I just wasn’t seeing a group of kids in wheelchairs I was watching footballers. One kid got shouted at for using a profanity probably because of the smaller kids present and the mums on the line. Another kid lost the kid he was marking, another kid scored an absolute screamer so on and so on and you can’t say anything more about the game of powerchair football than that. It’s football the greatest game there is – just a tiny bit different.
I had a great day and a big thanks to the parents and the kids and Mark Clayton, Club Chairman for making me feel so welcome.