Northern Ireland’s powerchair football team are currently in Australia competing at the FIPFA Powerchair World Cup finals for the first time.
Coaching them is Michael Hilland, who is heavily involved in the sport alongside his sons Scott and Jamie.
The Newtownards-based Hilland family have been at the forefront of powerchair football development in Northern Ireland for many years now.
Watching the sport evolve in recent years, Michael believes powerchair football and the community surrounding it has yet to reach its peak.
He explained: “The evolution of the sport in Northern Ireland has been dramatic. The type of game we play now is a totally different style from the early days of driving the ball in front of you.
“It is more about creating passes than dribbling. The equipment the boys use now is also more advanced than the first machines that were developed.”
Powerchair football is a dynamic and fast-paced version of football adapted for electric wheelchair (powerchair) users.
It is typically played in a gym hall on a 30m x 18m court. Two teams of four players (including the goalkeeper) pass, dribble and spin-kick an oversized football as they try to score more goals than the opposing team.
Athletes compete in specially designed powerchairs. Metal foot guards are attached to the front of the powerchairs which allow players to ‘kick’ the ball. Athletes ‘spin’ to generate power, striking the ball with the side of the guard for the strongest hits, although using the front bars of the guard often results in a more accurate hit.
Michael, who has coached the Northern Ireland senior team since 2019, has spent his life supporting the broader sport of football as well as powerchair football.
Originally approached in 2017 by the Irish Football Association to coach a fledgling international powerchair football development team at a Home Nations event in England, Michael has never looked back, taking great pride in coaching the national team.
An avid player in amateur football, Michael founded the Belfast Trailblazers powerchair team in 2010 as a way to involve Scott in the sport he loved.
Scott (25) now captains the Northern Ireland powerchair team, while his other son Jamie (28) is a powerchair football referee and also plays for Ards Rangers.
Michael explained: “My family are totally invested in powerchair football as it is such a large part of Scott’s life.
“As a parent you want your child to be happy and to thrive and powerchair football was a conduit for that at the time. As a brother Jamie wanted to be involved in a sport with Scott which was something they were not able to do as children growing up.”
With no sign of slowing down anytime soon, the sport and its community hope to be strong contenders for inclusion at the Paralympic Games in the near future.
Qualifying for the tournament back in 2019, the Northern Ireland side are only now competing at the World Cup after unavoidable delays caused by the Covid pandemic.
The tournament was originally set to take place in 2021 but was subsequently cancelled twice.
Northern Ireland qualified for the FIPFA (Federation Internationale de Powerchair Football Association) Powerchair Football World Cup by competing at the European Powerchair Football Association Nations Cup.
At that event in May 2019 seven teams competed in a round robin format with the top four countries securing an automatic place at the World Cup.
The remaining place was decided by play-offs between the teams placed fifth, sixth and seventh.
Northern Ireland, who had finished fifth in the round robin, went on to beat both Austria and Finland in the play-offs, thereby securing the remaining World Cup spot.
Michael pointed out: “We were ecstatic when we qualified. The EPFA Nations Cup was the team’s first major tournament. We have a relatively young team so they didn’t have any expectations.
“To qualify for the World Cup at the first time of trying was fantastic. The boys were amazing and handled the international stage really well.”
The players representing Northern Ireland in Australia this week are: Scott Hilland (captain), Patrick Cumiskey, Bartek Kuszkowski, Jason Browning, Carl McVeigh and Sean McKinney.
Although Northern Ireland have found points hard to come by at the World Cup in Sydney, Michael is proud of each and every player.
He said: “It has been an honour to be given the opportunity to coach this group of players. Watching them grow and develop both on and off the court has been an awesome experience.”