Irish Powerchair football back in action
However, the sport has come a long way since 2003 when Portlaiose native Aoife McNicholl first got involved. Aoife spoke to FAI.ie about her journey, the World Cup, returning to play post pandemic and hopes for the sport in the future.
"I was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at age of two and a half and in simple terms the condition affects my muscles and as a result I use a power wheelchair on a daily basis," Aoife explained.
Growing up Aoife was limited for choice of sports to participate in, but it wasn’t long before Powerchair Football came on the scene.
"I wasn’t introduced to Powerchair Football until the age of 10 and up until that time I would have had an interest in sport but never had the opportunity or outlet to play. There were other wheelchair sports around at the time such as basketball but because of my disability, I wouldn’t have the physical strength to play those.
"Powerchair Football was introduced by Muscular Dystrophy Ireland and it was very much on a recreational basis. We would have played in our day chairs, attaching plastic boxes on the front and using those to hit the ball around. I suppose it really was very makeshift at the start and then it developed from there," Aoife added.
A turning point came when parties including the FAI Football For All programme, Muscular Dystrophy Ireland and some Local Sports Partnerships came together to help establish the Association of Irish Powerchair Football (AIPF).
"In 2009 the AIPF was set up with a formal league and club teams introduced and we would have an annual AIPF Cup. At that stage it was still everyone playing in their day chairs but it was still good progress."
Progress continued with Aoife and her international team-mates going on to events on the global stage.
"We as an Irish team travelled to their first World Cup in 2011 and I was a member of the squad who travelled to Paris. By that stage, specifically designed sports chairs were introduced in Ireland and we started to play in those. Then kicking forward to 2016, a USA player had developed the Strike Force which was designed for Powerchair football were on the scene.
"The new chairs mean everyone now is on the same level, which is great, making the game more about the individual ability and skill. It has helped the sport develop at a quicker pace and it is faster and more skilful with everyone playing in the same chair," Aoife explained.
The COVID-19 pandemic has meant Aoife has had a long wait for another World Cup having first attended in 2011.
"I played in my first World Cup in 2011 and then we had our second World Cup in Florida in 2017. We were supposed to compete in the World Cup last year in Australia but it was postponed due to the pandemic. Now we found out a couple of weeks ago that it has now been pushed back again until 2023.
"With the recent announcement, people were quite disappointed as we have been preparing with the Irish team since last October. Back in 2021, everyone knew it wasn’t going to go ahead as we were in the depts of the pandemic so it’s added disappointment to have to wait another year.
"However it does give us more time to prepare and fundraise which will be vital given the distance and costs for all the equipment etc.," Aoife added.
There is a return to competitive action before then with an upcoming tournament in Belfast.
"The tournament is with England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and it takes place in May. It’s great to have something between now and the World Cup so that we have a goal to work towards. We basically didn’t train for 18 months with the restrictions on indoor sports and it was tough being out of action for so long. The AIPF league also resumed in January and it’s great to be playing competitive games again.
"My club team DCU did some Zoom calls with tactical work and reviewing of matches. Apart from that, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do as our sport is specifically for people with disabilities and everyone was being that bit more cautious than the average person in terms of going out and socialising due to the risk of the virus."
Aoife spoke about her experience on RTÉ and it has helped attract some new Powerchair footballers. Aoife encouraged anyone looking to participate to reach out and get involved.
"We have had a new player come to our club at DCU in the last few weeks. It really has raised the exposure for the sport and I think a lot of people just aren’t aware of Powerchair football so it was brilliant to get the word out there. Hopefully we will see a rise in new people joining. You don’t have to have an interest in playing sport or sport itself to enjoy Powerchair football. I wouldn’t be a massive football fan; I wouldn’t be overly interested in following the Premier League for example.
"The experience of playing Powerchair Football is very different from watching able bodied football or the running game. There’s quite a low participation rate amongst females playing the sport in Ireland and even worldwide. I would say to anyone, male or female to come along and give it a try, you’ve nothing to lose."
When asked about her thoughts for the future of the game, Aoife is hoping the sport gains traction in the media to help keep the sport on an upward trajectory.
"I would love to see more exposure nationally. In England over the summer BT Sports televised live a Powerchair Football final live from St. George’s Park. I would love to see some of our games televised or streamed so people can watch, come along and just help raise the profile. Our athletes are competing with the same amount of dedication as our able body counterparts and so we should strive for the same recognition and exposure."
More information on the AIPF and local clubs, visit https://aipf.ie