Ireland's amputees: 'We want people to say 'wow' not 'aww''
Ireland's amputee team not just aiming for pride as they take on the world
Let's get it out of the way nice and quickly so we can concentrate on the football. For some, it was a condition they were born with, for others it was cancer, for a few it was an accident. That's why they're missing a limb. Now let's move on, because they certainly have.
They, the Irish Amputee football team, have moved on to the World Cup in Mexico where, yesterday, they lost 2-0 to Copa America champions Brazil and gave a decent account of themselves. Today, it's Uzbekistan, the world champions, followed by a final group game against Ukraine tomorrow in games that are seven-a-side with halves lasting 25 minutes.
The players are only allowed the control the ball with their dominant foot, there's no offside and tackles and aerial challenges are contested ferociously. It's football, just not quite as we know it.
This is Ireland's first World Cup and, particularly given the circumstances of the players involved, the temptation is to praise the achievement of just getting there with something approaching a metaphorical pat on the head. But then, they haven't travelled from all parts of the country to spend weekends training in UL with agility and bleep tests, diet sheets and six-day-a-week training programmes for the majority of this year, just to be told they're great lads.
"We want people to look at us play and say 'wow'," says Simon Baker. "We don't want them saying 'aww look at them, fair play to them for trying to play a bit of football'."
Baker is the chairman and co-founder of the Irish Amputee Football Association (IAFA) who, along with the FAI's Oisin Jordan and Christy McElligott, who won a League of Ireland title with St Patrick's Athletic in 1995, has been a driving force in the organisation since its inception three years ago. This is the culmination of their efforts for this phase of development, but they hope it's only the start.
At a recent training session, the junior team were mixed in with members of the senior squad when a mother told Baker how her young son is no longer playing football in the back garden pretending to be Robbie Keane.
"She told us he's going around saying 'I'm David Saunders' (one of the stars of the IAFA) and how it's his dream now to play for Ireland," explains Baker. "Myself and Christy were watching some of these young fellas with a tear in our eye because we know that this is the future.
"Whatever happens in the next week, this is the first World Cup and it's something that those who are looking enough to be involved will always have but we know there's a responsibility on us because it's just the start. We want it to be the first part of a legacy."
Such grand ambitions might sound fanciful but then, over the past 10 years, Baker has reached the Guinness Book of World Records for fastest marathon time on crutches on one leg, the same method he used to go the 240km from Dublin to Limerick in 2011. When you've done all that, as well as setting up the IAFA and going "open handed" seeking sponsorship for the organisation, it's no wonder things don't get sugar-coated.
"It's not really politically correct at times but if you want to mope around and say how bad life has treated you, this might not be the place for you. If you want to meet people, have a laugh, get fit and goals, make friends and maybe represent your country, this is it.
"Don't get me wrong," adds Baker. "If somebody's having a hard time and needs to talk we'll be there for them the same as any group of mates would be but dressing rooms aren't places where lads sit around talking about how bad life is and we're no different.
"You can see the disability that the lads have - it's obvious. There's a lot of people in the country going through some very tough times and their difficulties aren't so obvious so there's no point in having us sitting there telling everyone 'this is how I lost my leg, my life was ruined etc'. Life can be tough enough without sticking violins behind people's stories who don't want you to feel sorry for them."
The humour within the camp shines through from hashtag on their Twitter feed - 'Let Off, Game On' - to the squad profiles which include High Performance Coach Alan 'Once More Up and Back' Heary, Garry 'Hi I'm from Dundalk' Hoey and Alan 'Did You See My Goal At The Aviva' Wall.
It also tells us that Saunders "is so committed to the IAFA that he is leaving his blushing bride-to-be Anne Marie ALONE to organise the final preparations for their December wedding" and that goalkeeper David Casey "allegedly lost his arm to a shark when on a fishing expedition off the Atlantic coast of Co Longford".
Having sponsored an international competition held in Ireland 15 months ago, Paddy Power have maintained their generosity with captain Baker reminding the players and everyone involved that all of this hard work hasn't been done "just so as we can go to the beach in Mexico for a week".
On the day of his last press conference in Malahide, Roy Keane spoke to the squad about keeping up their motivation and trusting in the hard work that they had put in. The players listened and learned having been warned by Baker not to "embarrass themselves by being like groupies and going asking Keane for autographs, selfies or whatever else".
The message was blunt delivered with a bit of humour but it was also clear and professional. For this group, it's rarely any other way.
Tweets of the week
Joey Barton (@Joey7Barton): Please hold your breath Edwina. The longer the better... - The QPR midfielder moves from his usual Descartes analysis to 'I'm A Celebrity' with a suggestion for former Conservative MP Edwina Currie.
Chelsea (@chelseafc): The Blues going for goal number four here aware that a 3-0 lead can be a dangerous one in the @ChampionsLeague. - London's blue corner takes a none-too-subtle dig at those from the red side of the capital.
Sepp Blatter (@SeppBlatter): Very best wishes to fellow Swiss citizen Tina Turner on your birthday today. Many happy returns! - Not much love for the FIFA president in response to his birthday greeting. But then, what's love got to do with it?
Sean St Ledger (@seanstledger12): Thanks for the all the tweets today sorry I couldn't reply to everyone but I read them all! - After signing for Ipswich the defender will, hopefully, have a little less time on his hands.
Juan Mata (@juanmata8): Ready for tomorrow! @marcosrojo5 @AnderHerrera @FALCAO @D_DeGea @fellainiM @ManUtd - Rumours of a fresh injury to Falcao in the wake of the picture accompanying the tweet proved unfounded.
Pat Frost (@KitmanPat): Might seem a minor thing but arsenal have left all the balls on the pitch after there warm up...which we lend them... - The West Brom kitman gives another reason for Arsenal-bashing. At least it's original.
Sergio Aguero (@AgueroKunSergio): Happy for a victory against a tough rival that hadn't lost in their turf so far. We're closer now! C'mon, City! - The City striker has the decency not to mention his ridiculous yellow card he received for an alleged dive.
The question nobody asked
When was the last season Frank Lampard didn't score a Premier League goal?
The Daily Telegraph's Henry Winter joked yesterday that Frank Lampard is only 173 goals from breaking Manchester City's goalscoring record after the midfielder netted during his team's 3-0 win against Southampton.
It was Lampard's third league goal for City and, if he stays beyond his initial loan term, there's a chance he could reach double figures in the Premier League for what would be the 11th time in 12 seasons.
Last season broke a run of 10 years reaching double figures in the league but you have to go back to the 1996/97 season at West Ham to find the last time Lampard didn't score in the Premier League.
He made just 13 appearances that season but his league goals record per season since reads: 5, 5, 7, 7, 5, 6, 10, 13, 16, 11, 10, 12, 22, 10, 11, 15, 6. Even if he took plenty of penalties, it's still remarkable.
The bet you should have done
Arsenal, Liverpool, Man Utd treble, 3/1
None of these teams have been convincing this season which is why they were priced relatively generously to beat West Brom (away) as well as Stoke and Hull, both at home.
Liverpool would have caused the most nerves as they waited until Glen Johnson's late winner but, relatively speaking, it was a decent opportunity to treble your money.