‘It’s important we create role models within disability sport’
My name is Chris Gordon and I am 31 years of age. I play powerchair football for England and West Bromwich Albion as goalkeeper and I am also the player-manager there. We are the reigning Premiership champions and have won the league the last three years on the spin. We have just started a new season after Covid and we are looking to defend our title and get number four!
I have a condition called spinal muscular atrophy. Basically the spinal cord is damaged and the messages do not pass through the spine to the muscles as they should and that causes the muscles to atrophy, which means the muscles weaken and over time the muscles will continue to get weaker - that’s my understanding of it anyway!
It has got to the stage where it has plateaued and I am stable as I am but it has meant I use a powered wheelchair on a day-to-day basis. I rely on my chair to get about, I have an adapted car and I have adaptations in the house, but those things are just there to help me live a normal life and I live as much of a normal life as possible.
I am engaged, I have a house, a little dog and I try to live a normal life. Football is my passion and my career now. I have a business where we import the chairs that we play in from America and we distribute them around the UK and Europe. So powerchair football is my life, it is my career and I love the sport. And I hope to be involved with it for a long time to come yet.
Everyone always asks me how long I have been playing and I always say ten years but it has probably been 15 years because I am getting on a bit now! I started playing for England in 2011, where my first taste of international football was at the FIPFA Powerchair Football World Cup in Paris, which was a great experience.
We were the unofficial England team then but members from the FA came out to watch the tournament so it was obvious they were looking at powerchair football and keen to know more. So we wanted to perform to have the opportunity where we could get to the stage we are now and thankfully the FA got on board and it has been great ever since.
Most recently we won the EUROs (EPFA Nations Cup) which was fantastic because we were starting to become the nearly team. We had reached one World Cup final in 2011 and a European final in 2014 but lost both, so to get over the line was great.
We went 2-0 down in the match as well so we were starting to think ‘oh no, here we go again’ but we rallied and got back in the game to get back to 2-2 and then won on penalties.
I always think with sport that whilst those moments are great individually, it is even better to do it as a team. We had been working as a group for about 12 years to get that success so to finally get over the line and see what it means to not only the players but all the families and all the support staff from The FA was fantastic.
That was obviously a personal highlight for me with England. And then away from England with my club, we again were the nearly team, where Aspire had been the league champions for about eight years on the spin. But we eventually won our first title and then we have kept the momentum going to win three league titles and two cups since.
So currently West Brom are the team to beat, which is great, and we are hoping we can showcase what our sport is about to get it out there to the masses.
The sport is certainly growing. I think Covid came at a really bad time for us because we had just won the EUROs and the sport then completely shut down, so any promotional opportunities off the back of that was impossible.
Covid massively impacted us. It was a complete lockdown for us. Our sport stopped and when everyone else was starting to return, we were rightly very cautious because there are a lot of guys and girls who have severe disabilities so if they were to contract Covid then it could have been fatal.
But now we are back, we need that profile and we need to get the sport in front of people, and who knows what opportunities come off the back of that.
There are a lot of boys and girls playing the game but we need to take the elite team, the England national team, to generate role models and inspire a nation so they know they can be the next generation of powerchair football players.
I never personally set out to be a role model or anything like that. I just love playing football and it is my passion. But it is really important that we create role models within the disability bubble with all the different teams and have guys and girls that they can look up to.
In my era I was watching the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard play football and I just wanted to be like them, running around playing football. I wanted to represent England and play for the Three Lions. But that isn’t achievable for us. We can’t play able-bodied football. So we need the role models within the different disciplines. If it is a blind person, then they can hear all about blind footballers and hear the names of players scoring goals. We want a young kid in a wheelchair to watch us on a screen and say ‘my word, wow look at that. I can be that, I can go and play for England. I can play in a World Cup. I can play in a European Championship’.
Chilwell and Ramsdale take on powerchair football
England Powerchair stars Chris Gordon and Jon Bolding show Ben Chilwell and Aaron Ramsdale how to play powerchair football
That has got to be the aim for the FA and for articles like this. If we can get the message out there about what the sport is about then it opens the doors to people to get involved.
I also think we want to celebrate what the individuals have overcome to get to where they are. We are not just here to make up the numbers or get a pat on the back for playing sport. We want to be the best we can be and we are elite sportsmen and women. We are playing at the top of our game and we want to show people that if they go away and work hard then they can achieve things in life.
Sport has been my release and if we can put that message out there then I am sure there are hundreds or thousands of people in the same shoes as me who maybe don’t even know there is powerchair football.
Days like the International Day of People with Disabilities are great for promoting our sport and we recently had a great afternoon filming with Ben Chilwell and Aaron Ramsdale, which helped take the sport to a new audience. But it is important that we do not just have that one day a year where we promote sports like ours. There has got to be more effort from everyone involved to push disability football and other disability sports on a daily basis.
We have a responsibility to educate society and to encourage people to ask questions. I think what is really strange in our world is people don’t want to offend anyone and we have a ‘where there is a blame, there is a claim’ culture where people are a bit timid or scared to ask questions.
If there is someone in a wheelchair there, instead of saying something patronising like ‘I see you breaking the speed limit’ or whatever, go and ask them about their journey. Then people will go away and be like ‘o wow, he plays for England’. Who knows then where that one conversation will lead. It could lead to more opportunities for the sport or it could be that person gets involved with something and it becomes a career, a passion or an interest.
So go online and have a look at the Wheelchair Football Association. On there you will find details about your local club and even if it is someone who isn’t in a wheelchair but might be interested in the game.
Go down to your local team and see how you can help them out. For example there might be someone studying media at university who could help promote the game. Any opportunity like that is what we are crying out for as a sport. I know people who have got involved with powerchair football and have got nice careers off the back of it so you never know what it could lead to.