Dan McLellan's rise to representing England at the Powerchair World Cup at just 14
England Powerchair and Aspire player Dan McLellan discusses his journey from starting out in powerchair football to going to the 2023 FIPFA Powerchair Football World Cup in Sydney, Australia
I am absolutely buzzing for the World Cup. I have been counting down the days!
I don’t think the fact I am going to be playing in my first World Cup at only 14 will kick in until the whistle goes for that opening game against Argentina.
Nothing compares to getting that call-up to represent your country. It is a feeling you just can’t explain.
My dad is coming over as my carer and then my mum and my brother are coming over to support me.
Without my family, I wouldn’t be able to do what I am doing. Yes, you have the obvious stuff like helping me into my chair and driving me places, but you also have all the things like the mental support they give me. Playing at such a high level at such a young age can be quite tough mentally so having people there to support me and who can help put things into context and not beat myself up is so important.
I watched us win the EUROs in 2019 and I remember just being in awe of them all. I remember thinking how good the players were.
I was playing powerchair football at the time but I wasn’t hugely into it or playing at a particularly high level and I think it was seeing them all play in that EUROs final and then celebrating afterwards as a team and with their families made me want to become an England international.
I got into the England talent pathway in 2022 and then played my first match for the development squad in April, before my first game for the senior team came at the Home Nations tournament in Dublin in May this year.
Lining up ahead of my first game against Scotland wearing an England shirt was a surreal moment. I had played for the development team before but to be a senior international made me so proud.
When you are born with a disability and diagnosed at a young age, but love football as much as I do, I think the thing you grieve the most is that you think you won’t have the chance to ‘make it’ and represent your country. But I have managed to achieve it!
I was diagnosed with Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy at the age of two and after initially being able to walk all the time, I have now been off my feet full-time since the age of eight.
Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for my condition and it is just a case of trying to make sure it does not get worse by doing lots of stretches and things like that.
A lot of my muscles are really tight, for example, I cannot straighten my arms and legs very much and I have quite bad control of my head, weak neck strength and I do not have very good dexterity in my hands.
Life was quite hard early on because I have loved football my whole life, like any other kid, but I was never able to play it like they could.
My mum and dad would try to help me play but it would always be things like sitting on the goal so I could goal hang or going in goal and sitting down, trying to make saves by diving while sitting down.
So I could play but I felt like I was half-playing and I wanted to have that feeling of playing competitive football and the thrill of playing football.
I found that when I started playing powerchair football. I enjoyed it the first time I played but it was weird for me because I didn’t instantly fall in love with it to the point I was feeling like I wanted to play it forever. I did like it but I didn’t build my life around it and I was still grieving not being able to play mainstream football at that point.
But over time and as I kept developing, I improved and started playing in the leagues.
I was eight when I started playing for my local team in Northamptonshire and then my dad was going to pick up a new chair for me from the Aspire Powerchair Football Club, because they were selling some, and when he went to pick it up, they had a session going on so he watched it and the person he picked the chair up asked if I wanted to come down for a session.
I didn’t enjoy my first session because I was so reluctant to go initially. But my parents forced me to go again because they knew it was in my best interests and I loved the second session.
A week after my second session, I got a call on the Friday night asking if I could play for the third team on the Saturday and Sunday. I didn’t really understand the rules at that point or know exactly what I was meant to do but I was so excited!
I did ok that first weekend so then I carried on playing for Evergreen and then after a season there, I moved to Muscle Warriors – the second team at the Aspire hub – but then halfway through the season, COVID hit.
In our last five-game weekend before COVID, we won all five and I thought even though I am not one of the best players in the team, if I keep working hard and improve then this genuinely might be something I am good at.
I carried on training after COVID and then my dad received a message from the Aspire captain and coach, Jon Bolding, asking if I wanted to be on the bench for the FA Disability Cup at St. George’s Park!
Jon had been impressed with me in training when we played the first team and he wanted to provide me with the experience.
It was my first time at St. George’s Park and seeing all the changing rooms and stuff like that, it was such an amazing experience and helped me feel like ‘yeah, this is what I want to do’.
I was on the bench for the match but I still loved being around the team and a couple of weeks later, I was asked if I wanted to join the Aspire first team permanently, which was an absolute no-brainer.
My first season in the Premiership, the 2021-22 season, we finished second and I was the league’s joint third top goalscorer and won the Young Player of the Year award, which was so cool.
Last season we strengthened our squad with the signing of Brad Bates and improved further as a group, meaning we ended up winning the Premiership by six points. I scored the last-minute winner against West Bromwich Albion in our last game and I just went mental!
The end of last season was also when I got my first senior call-up and my World Cup place so it is fair to say it has been a great year!
Meeting Jon Bolding when I was 11 or 12 was absolutely huge for me. I have tried to thank him before but I can’t thank him enough.
Jon is such a good role model and gives me so much great support, especially when I came into the England team for the first time. He is such a comforting figure for the young players. I don’t think any of this would have happened had he not taken a chance on me.
I think for most players starting out, Chris Gordon and Jon Bolding are two of the players we look up to the most, as they are the two more senior members of the England side and are two of the best players in the world.
They are such rocks for the rest of the squad and they are really good role models for us younger players, always lending us support.
When I was younger, I used to wish I wasn’t disabled so I could play football. But playing for England has completely changed my mindset, where now I am glad I am disabled in a way because – yes I would have been able to walk and run and things like that – but I wouldn’t have had the chance to achieve all the things I have already in powerchair football and met all the amazing friends I have in the sport.
So to any other kids thinking of taking up powerchair football, give it a go, even if you think you are not going to like it because I didn’t think I was going to like it.
I’d also recommend persisting with it. You have to give it a chance and not shut it down straight away.
Powerchair football is literally 90 per cent of my life now. I obviously have my family and friends but powerchair football is right up there in the top three most important things in my life.
Without it, I don’t know what I would do. It is my hobby, my talent, my passion, a place I have made friends and it is something for me to look forward to if I am having a bad week. I love it.
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