Article Written by Chris Waugh
"Promotion is just the start...we want the Premiership title."
Just as Kevin Keegan famously warned Alex Ferguson that Newcastle United were "coming for Manchester United's title" following promotion in 1993, Rob Thompson, player coach of the club's Powerchair football side, holds similarly lofty ambitions.
You see, while first-team head coach Steve Bruce and his players can merely dream about potential FA cup glory, with no guarantees the competition can resume due to the coronavirus pandemic, another team wearing Newcastle's black and white stripes have already secured silverware.
The club's Powerchair football side, who are affiliated with and funded by the Newcastle United Foundation, have been awarded the Muscular Dystrophy UK National League Championship title, claiming promotion to the top-tier Premiership in the process following an unbeaten campaign. This success arrived in their debut season at national level - and, remarkably, with two star players aged just 10 and 12.
"This team is young but it has players who I know will play for England one day," Jamie Harrison, the team's head coach, tells The Athletic over Zoom just days after Newcastle's title triumph was confirmed following the decision to settle the campaign on a points-per-game basis. "We were the unknowns at the start of the season and nobody took us seriously, but promotion was always the goal and we don't want to stop there. The passion for football in the north east is unique and we want to harness that in Powerchair football."
This mixed sex disability sport, which only launched in 2006, may still be battling for wider recongnition but some of Newcastle's celebrity supporters have already taken notice. In January, TV presenters Ant and Dec quote-tweeted a video from the team's account with the captions "WHAT A GOAL!", resulting in more than 138,000 views. Newcastle forward Dwight Gayle, who is the NUFC Foundation's ambassador for disability football, declared himself "really impressed" after visiting the team. Had the season not ended early, then fans' group Wor Flags had floated the idea of providing match day display at a Powerchair Football weekend. What's more, Newcastle Legends - a company which hosts events with former players such as Lee Clark, Rob Lee and John Beresford - have held talks about setting up a match between the Powerchair side and ex-Newcastle players.
"It won't be a pretty sight when the legends play...but any exposure, really, is massive for us," Thompson, a player-coach who has twice represented England at the Powerchair World Cups in Japan and France, says "It can be really hard for those with disabilities who love football; a lot of them think they'll never get the chance. But I have played for England and I want others to as well. I want people to be proud to represent Newcastle at this sport."
Powerchair football is the only active team participation sport for people who use electric wheelchairs and is, according to Harrison, "a diluted version of F1 mixed in with football." Teams of four, including goalkeepers, play on a basketball-sized court across two 20-minute halves with a larger 33-centimeter diameter ball, though the majority of the other rules are reminiscent of football iteself.
"Who I first started, the wheelchairs were essentially standard NHS chairs with a car tyre ratcheted on to the front of it," Harrison says of machines that are limited to a maximum of 6.2 miles per hour during matches. "But the technology is becoming so advanced, like in F1, that teams are looking for that additional one per cent to make all the difference. You want your chair to accelerate quickly and be as agile as possible. There's now a US company which specialises in chairs for Powerchair football."
But such elite engineering is expensive. The top of the range model that Premiership sides use costs £8,500.00 per chair and, while Thompson and a couple of other players have recieved funding for their chairs, others rely on those provided by the Foundation and other charities. The team have access to 18 chairs - some of which are older models - and they are housed at Percy Hedley in Killingworth, North Tyneside, another organisation which provides sporting and life opportunities to those with disabilities.
"People get scared when I turn around and say, 'We could easily spend a hundred grand in 20 minutes if you let us' but that really is the case," Thompson says. "We have some very talented players in this reigon and some people who really love the sport but they need the tools to be able to play. That's where the Foundation and other charities have been fantastic. It's an expensive sport but by its nature, it has to be, given that the majority of those who play it require electric wheelchairs for mobility."
Newcastle's youth side has been running since September 2017 and is already producing players who the club's coaches are adamant will go on to receive international honours. Thompson - who has played in a World Cup final, in the Champions League and has won Premiership titles at previous clubs - is the side's veteran at 32 while 21 year old captain Lee Armstrong was the Championship's top scorer in 2019-2020 with 19 goals.
Across an unbeaten campaign, Newcastle won 11 of their 13 matches, having qualified through the regional play offs to reach national level for the first time last summer.
Yet both Harrison and Thompson describe 10 year old Old Crawshaw and 12 year old Alby Morris as the "influential, rising talents" in the team; while they also have high hopes for Same McKie who, aged just 8, is the youngest player in the eight-strong squad. Alby was also the official matchday mascot for Newcastle's 0-0 draw with Burneley at St James' Park on February 29, another opportunity which arouse due to the links with the Foundation.
Next season, this trio of youngsters will come up against teams including Machester United and newly-crowned champions West Bromwich Albion, as well as local rivals Northern Thunder, who both Harrison and Thompson were formerly associated with.
"These players are very talented and we have the ability to beat even the best team in the Premiership next season comfortably, to be honest," Thompson says. "But we also have the ability for it to fall flat on our faces because we've built a team with an emphasis on a 10 year old and a 12 year old.
"This season, teams were opening themselves up against us early on because they underestimated us and we'd be 6-0 up by half time. By the end of the season, teams were sitting back and thinking, 'If we get beat 1-0, we're happy.' But, at the end of the day, this is an adult league that these kids are playing in. You wouldn't dream of putting a 10 year old into a Premier League football side and, even if this is slightly different, that's what we're doing. It's a huge step up but we have that much faith in them."
Although the coaching team believe they can challenge for "the top three, if not the title" inside two seasons, their inspiration is not on court success alone. Rather, as sessional coaches employed by the club's charity. the pair are passionate about increasing opportunities for people with diabilites in the north east.
"You have no idea how many children we meet who love Newcastle United but think that, because of their disability, they'll never be able to play the sport," Harrison, a former England coach, says of a club which refularly has more than 20 people of all ages attending weekly sessions, with numbers continuing to grow. "The looks they give you when you say to them, 'You can pull on a Newcastle shirt and, not only that, you can wear Alan Shearer' No. 9 as well'. It's just pure joy; the realisation that an opportunity they never though would come their way is actually realistic.
"We don't recruit p[eople on the sole basis of making sure they are good enough to play for Newcastle or England. It's about the social side, of getting people out of the house to make friends. The north east is different to other areas of the country; football really can change lives here because it means that much to people. That's the power Newcastle United can have and that is as important to me as coaching someone to play for their country."
The Premiership title may be a challenging target but it is only one of the many genuine ambitions Newcastle's powerchair team have for growing the sport in a fooball-fanatical area.
To learn more about Newcastle United Foundation Powerchair Football and other disability football opportunities, visit:
(Photo: Alexandra Johnson Photography)
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