Tuesday 16 July 2019

Captain Courage: Amputee Football Association of Ireland

When Christy McElliott's glittering professional football career was cut short by a head-on collision with an articulated lorry, the only thought on his mind as he scrambled out of the burning wreckage of his truck -- minus his right leg -- was an important football game he had that evening.

Recalling the accident that happened 12 years ago, the Ballymun man feels he got off lightly: "I was driving a smaller truck when the articulated lorry hit me. My truck was on fire and I had to jump out the window with no leg, which had been taken clean off in the impact. The most embarrassing thing was I had lost my tracksuit bottoms. I remember the only thing on my mind was that I had a friendly match that night. I thought: 'How was I going to play?' I was blessed, really -- I could have been killed."

When he was eventually released from hospital, rather than dwelling on the loss of his leg and the end of his football career, Christy McElliott made it his business to become fit again and return back to his day job as a truck driver.

"I always had a problem with the weight because I have a sweet tooth, but when I had the accident I was at my fittest ever -- and that helped me to recover quickly. I came to terms with the accident straight away. Obviously, I had the odd downer because I couldn't play but I never really sat down and thought about losing the leg. So I decided to get on with it rather than get depressed about it. Despite the accident, I believe Lady Luck has looked down upon me very kindly."

However, the father of four isn't ready to give up just yet. Last year, Christy and a group of like-minded folk decided to set up the Amputee Football Association of Ireland.

The association has 30 players and competed in their first international games in the UK last month, beating Germany 3-1.

A tough game, amputee football makes professional football look like child's play. To hit a ball, players in the seven-a-side game need to lean sideways on their crutch and then kick their one good leg with lightning speed lest they fall over.

"You are not allowed to wear a prosthetic limb at all and you can't use a crutch to hit the ball. It is a highly technical and skilled game and definitely not for the faint hearted. If a professional footballer had to play with his good leg strapped up they would find it extremely hard," explains Christy.

For goalkeepers, the rules are slightly different in that they must have a missing arm rather than a missing leg.

The Amputee Football team is made up of people from all walks of life and is open to both men and women. So far the women have proven reticent, with only one lady on the team.

Every week the team train in Ballymun United's football grounds, and after a gruelling session, it is strictly tea and biscuits rather than a few well-earned pints.

"We are not a social club where everyone drinks pints. We are a dedicated football team," explains Christy.

An unwritten rule amongst the football team is that they don't discuss their injuries. However, that doesn't mean that they can't have a good laugh.

"We don't really like to talk about how we lost our limbs, but I remember our goalkeeper told me about his accident and how he lost his arm in Australia. He was out fishing with his brother who fell into the sea.

"So he jumped into the water to save his life and as he was lifting his brother into the boat, a shark attacked the goalkeeper and twisted and turned him and tossed him in the air ripping his arm off. I thought, 'What a hero -- what a man!' Of course, it was all a wind-up, he was only spoofing me. I still don't know how he lost his arm," jokes Christy.

Christy's professional football career began at 18 when he was spotted by a talent scout who signed him up to St Pat's.

"Brian Kerr, who was managing Pat's at the time, offered me a contract; I was only a young lad and it was a nice sum of money. After that I was getting £120 a week and football became my full-time job,'' he recalls.

It was a glittering start to the young centre back's professional football career. With money burning a hole in his pocket and a contract with the country's premier club, he was living the dream. There were temptations, too, in the form of star-struck female fans whose only ambition in life was to bag a football player -- any football player.

"There were always groupies, and that was right across the board in all the clubs. But I was only a young kid and they were usually only interested in the older married blokes. Unlike English football, it was all very innocent stuff. Having said that, I hope there are no groupies out there looking for my number, my missus wouldn't be too happy," jokes Christy.

In 1995, he hit the headlines when he was paid the then record fee of £2,000 to be bought by Monaghan United.

Three years later, Christy did an unusual thing for a professional when he joined an amateur club, Ballymun United.

Over the next two years, he would go on to win 17 junior international caps for Ireland. However, in 2000 disaster struck when he had the accident. Unbowed, he picked himself up and became a coach instead.

Nowadays Christy lives the quiet life in Dunshaughlin, Co Meath, with his partner and children who are aged from five months to 18 years. A non-drinker and non-smoker, he is on disability benefit -- a situation that he is keen to change.

"I would like to go back driving again; the last thing I want is to be relying on social welfare. I was working for 18 months after the accident in a truck specially fitted out with hand controls, but then the haulage companies started telling me that they couldn't afford to hire me because I would be changing vehicle every day.

"What I need is a truck fitted out with hand controls and I would like to hear from anyone who wants a good driver," adds Christy.

Irish Independent

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