Three Lions in a chair: England’s World Cup on wheels

6 September 2018

The powerchair pioneer: Jon Bolding goes where no man has gone before

Jon Bolding at FIFPA World Cup 2017 in FloridaOur Can Do Sport supporter Jon Bolding has a coveted, and possibly unique, record as an England captain: his team have reached the semi-finals or better at two consecutive World Cups.

Jon plays powerchair football, a fast-growing disability sport played using electric wheelchairs — also known as powerchairs — which have been specially designed for the sport. The 30-year-old has captained his country at World Cups and European championships, and led his club – Aspire PFC – to several major honours.

A tale of two leaders

If we just take the latest chapter of Jon’s career, there are some similarities with a slightly more well-known England captain: Harry Kane.

Jon is a well-respected and likeable Londoner, who is now the captain and talisman of his local team. At the last World Cup, he guided England to the semis in a tournament eventually won by France. England were lauded for the style of their play and their positive approach to the game.

Different resources

But as with most of the population, Jon has very different resources to a professional footballer like Harry Kane. The salary from his full-time job in Reading as a software tester for Fujitsu did not give him enough money to play the game at a high level. He launched an online fundraiser to buy his current sports chair.

He tells us:

‘There are a few great wheelchairs on the market which have been created for powerchair football by some brilliant companies.

‘There is a lot of necessary and expensive kit to support people to sit well in their chair and play the game to the best of their ability. They cost about £4000 and upwards, depending on the type of chair and any extras required.’

Many other players, including Jon’s England colleague and clubmate Charlie Kitcher, had to set up a crowdfunding page to raise money towards their sports chairs before the FIFPFA World Cup – Florida 2017.

World Cup exploits

Jon is in a positive mood after the team’s excellent performances at the last tournament.

He says:

‘The World Cup was one of the best experiences of my life. The squad we had is something I will never forget.

‘We did well to get to the semi- finals and we’re happy with some of our performances.

‘We know deep down we should have done better and at least reached the final. But we came away with things to work on. And the way we played gives everyone hope for the future.’

So how do you play powerchair football?

Jon describes the sport as ‘football played on a basketball-sized court’. Each powerchair football team has a maximum of four players playing at any one time, and a squad of eight for each match.

The sport uses a specifically designed ball that is 33cm in diameter. Players have guards on their chairs; they pass or shoot with a spin-kick, and strike the ball using the guard.

Jon Bolding playing for England against Ireland at the European Championships 2014

A match lasts 40 minutes, split into two halves — 20 minutes each. Rules are very similar to standard football. However, there are some extras: only one-on-one tackling is allowed, and only one player from each team is allowed within three metres of the ball at one time.

Who can play powerchair football?

It’s a sport designed for people who use electric wheelchairs. Players have a range of impairments, including cerebral palsy and muscle conditions such as muscular dystrophy. Players in tournament matches have a classification – either PF1 (for powerchair users with a higher level of impairment) or PF2 (for powerchair users with a slightly lower level of impairment).

Teams often feature a mix of male and female players as gender is irrelevant in powerchair football. Players starting out can often try out a sports chair with their local club, or fix an approved guard onto their standard chair.

Why play powerchair football?

Jon says:

‘I get enjoyment and competitiveness that I never had before powerchair football. The fast pace and skill makes the sport so exciting to be part of.’

The keen Arsenal supporter says it’s great fun for football fans, and for everyone else too!

‘It’s a great sport to be part of both from a social side and a competitive side. It’s the closest thing to football for a powerchair user.

‘I would encourage anyone — regardless of whether you enjoy football or not – to come and give it a go.’

Serious Competition

The Wheelchair Football Association runs powerchair football in England and Northern Ireland. The Scottish Powerchair Football Association (SPFA) has several major clubs, while Cardiff City PFC are showing the way for teams in Wales.

As well as the Premiership (top tier) and the Championship (second tier) in both England and Scotland, there are several regional leagues providing competition between all local sides.

Jon has a brilliant record in English domestic competitions: the all-action midfielder is the proud winner of seven WFA national league titles and four WFA Cups. He knows players throughout the powerchair football pyramid: the leagues include some familiar names like Manchester United, Manchester City, Leeds, Crystal Palace and AFC Bournemouth Warriors.

Aspire for more trophies

Last season came down to a battle between two teams at the top: Jon’s Aspire and West Bromwich Albion, led by his England colleague Chris Gordon – son of England head coach Colin Gordon. West Brom narrowly edged out Aspire in both the league and cup, leaving Jon understandably keen to win more silverware this season.

The next club goal is a continental one: all the major clubs head to Denmark in October for the Champions’ Cup. Aspire will probably face at least one team from France – the birthplace of powerchair football in the 1970s – as they launch their quest for European glory.

Huge transformation

Throughout his career, ever since he first started playing, Jon has been supported by his family – especially his parents. These days, he is also supported enthusiastically by his wife and three-year-old daughter.

With his club and with England, Jon has seen a huge transformation since he first started playing powerchair football aged 15.

“The sport has changed dramatically since I started. We used to have to use our own chairs and now we have specific sports wheelchairs. We used to have car tyres taped to our footplates; now we have specialist attachments to hit the ball.”

And Jon has suggestion for more changes to make the sport even better.

‘In the future, I believe we could make the size of the ball a little smaller as this would allow more goals to be scored. Players would need to use even more skill to strike the ball.’

Massive honour

Jon describes what it means to him to be captain of his country at such an exciting time in the sport.

‘It is a massive honour for me to be England captain. Since I started playing, this is something I have strived to achieve. I’m amazed to reach this point.’

And Jon knows the Three Lions can take great encouragement from recent history.

‘The last World Cup was absolutely brilliant, as I’ve said. So we’re really looking forward to Euro 2019 in Finland.’

Jon is relishing the opportunities of his sporting career. He has come tantalisingly close to living the dream.

It’s a dream that anyone who has ever watched international sport in this country can instantly recognise: being England captain and lifting the trophy at a major tournament.

In Finland next year, his dream may become a reality.

Want to get involved in powerchair football?

Visit the Wheelchair Football Association website and find your local club in both England and Northern Ireland.

You’ll also see links to the Scottish Powerchair Football Association (SPFA) and the body in the Republic of Ireland – the Association of Irish Powerchair Football (AIPF)

Wales: Cardiff City PFC launched in 2011, becoming the first powerchair football club in Wales. Get in touch with Disability Sport Wales or Cardiff to find out about more about them and other teams in Wales.

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