This story is part of 30 Under 30.
Chris has spinal muscular atrophy and from a young age has been playing powerchair football. With the sport constantly changing, Chris is gearing up to represent England in the Powerchair Football World Cup next year.
As part of 30 Under 30, he tells us how the sport has changed and why people should get involved.
I’ve always been football mad.
At school I was playing on my knees in goal, driving around on the floor until my muscles deteriorated. Then I got involved in wheelchair football. I was at secondary school and my P.E. teacher heard about trials that were going on at Aston Villa at the time. I’d never heard of the sport, never seen the sport played. So I got the afternoon off school, went down and had a look. I used to play by perching on the end of my seat and kicking a ball around in the garden with my brother so it was a bit of a shock when I arrived.
Back then it was a great big football and half a car tyre strapped onto the front of the wheelchairs. I actually burst out in tears. I was like “This isn’t football. I don’t want to play this.” It was more like bumper cars than football. But my dad was there and he encouraged me to give it a go. I fell in love with it and I’ve not stopped playing since.
The sport has massively changed since I started playing
There’s a national programme, there’s two national leagues with 12 teams in each and there’s regional leagues. Back when I started there was no real backing, we played in everyday wheelchairs so it was just whatever you could ‘bodge job’ up to play. It wasn’t very professional. But now we’ve got specific chairs for the sport, specific equipment and a national league structure behind it.
Rather than the car tyre on the front of the chair, we’ve got a clip on attachment that’s a solid metal structure that you use to knock the ball around. The ball itself has gone down to half the size.
It’s given the sport a whole new lease of life. It’s quicker, it’s more enjoyable to watch. The ball gets kicked around with a lot more power so a lot of people that are watching are pretty gobsmacked when we’re smashing the ball around the court.
The game has been taken to a different level.
My first involvement with the England team was in 2011. It’s all performance based. The coaching staff are all involved in the league so they’re just scouting the team, scouting the players. Then you get invited across for trials. And you’re just hoping to keep receiving an email saying “we’re inviting you back for the next one” and I’ve been in the squad ever since.
There’s been three World Cups now and 10 competing teams in each so far, from other counties world-wide. There’s been a qualification process to getting in the World Cup whereas before it was if you wanted to and if you’ve got the finances to do it. So now, fingers crossed, next year will be the most competitive World Cup to date. We had to qualify through a European qualifier.
It’s not a Paralympic sport yet but in 10 years’ time, I hope it will be. That will give it the bit of extra profile it needs and the professionalism it needs. It will allow people to view it as an elite sport rather than just an opportunity. Lots of people around it just see it as “oh great my son or daughter gets to play”, instead of “my son or daughter could be a gold medallist”. Fingers crossed that happens.
I would recommend it to anyone
At matches people can expect a lot of excitement. You get plenty of action. It’s kind of one of those sports that you have to see it to understand what it’s all about.
Fingers crossed, as it grows and we can open it up more to the general public, people will take a genuine interest and, fingers crossed, watch England win a World Cup.
I’ve always been quite a competitive person, so it gives me that opportunity to compete on a level playing field. Having the opportunity to grow as an athlete, being able to play in the World Cup and travel the world playing football, it’s been great. I would recommend it to anyone.
Chris is sharing his story as part of our 30 Under 30 campaign. We’ll be releasing one story a day throughout June from disabled people under 30 who are doing extraordinary things. Keep up to date with all of our new stories on our 30 under 30 page.
To find out more about powerchair football, visit the Wheelchair Football Association’s website.