Adare man Simon Baker in action on the senior international Irish amputee football team. The squad heads to Turkey this week to compete in the sport's first European Championships
“I have done more in the last 10 years with my life than I ever did in the 30 years before that… If you offered me back my leg, to swap back – not in a million years.”
A powerful sentiment from amputee football player Simon Baker, Adare, who spoke about his time in the sport ahead of travelling with the Irish team to Istanbul, Turkey, for the sport’s first ever European Championships.
It will be the 50-year-old centre-back’s last hurrah in the green jersey, as he plans to retire from the sport that he established in Ireland over six years ago after losing his own leg.
“We don’t want people to say ‘aww’, we want them to say ‘wow’ – pat us on the back, not the head,” he said.
Limerick is home for the team, and players travel from all over the country for intensive and rigorous training regimes under the watchful eye of local coach and former player Declan Considine.
“You can’t control the ball with anything other than your upper body and your one good leg. The goalkeeper only has one arm. It’s a tough game, and it’s a rigorous training regime. The lads will be taking their holidays now for this and there are full weekends of training each month as well as various other commitments. We are grateful to employers. It’s an amateur sport, that’s the thing,” said Simon.
The player, who is a native of Brixton, London, didn’t even play sports before the work accident that led him to lose his leg.
“I was in a bad place. I was a plasterer by trade and I had been a plasterer for 25 years. I had my own business in Germany and then I came to Ireland and had a few lads working for me in the height of the boom.
“I didn’t have time for sport. I worked six days a week, I drank on the seventh day, and then went to work with a hangover and did it all again.
“Then in 2004, I just went to work one day after the Christmas holidays, and ten minutes later, I was on the floor and that was it.
“I was taking tablets, drink and drugs, and then I suddenly found sports, and sports became my medicine. And it really is a medicine, because if you’re feeling lousy about yourself, you can just go out for a walk.
“When you come in after being out for a walk, you feel really good about yourself, you feel energised,” said Baker.
“I’m blessed to be part of amputee football. Limerick was very good to me, it’s definitely the sporting capital of Ireland. I wasn’t into sports until I came to Limerick, until I’d lost my leg and I found it very hard to get a job and stuff like that. Then I got a job at Limerick County Council, and I started to set myself physical challenges.”
He completed a number of these challenges during this explorative time, including a walk from Dublin to Limerick on crutches in aid of the ISPCC – which took five and a half days – as well as breaking the Guinness world record for fastest marathon on crutches.
“I looked for a sport, and as an amputee, I found that people either put me into a swimming pool or put me into a wheelchair, and I wanted neither. I found amputee football, and I decided to set it up, and I was lucky enough to have met people along the way who supported me,” he said.
The accident was a wake-up call for Simon. “I didn’t even notice the change in the seasons, I didn’t even notice the leaves falling to the ground… We forget about some of the simpler things. Life isn’t about having a top of the range car, keeping up with the Joneses, flying off to Mauritius, or whatever,” he said.
“I’ve learned that you’ve got to go to bed at night, and say to yourself, ‘I know I got the most out of today’, because you don’t know what tomorrow brings.
“Instead of thinking about what I haven’t got, I look back and think about what I have got.”
The Irish team has competed in one other major cup before this – the World Cup in Mexico in 2014.
But “this is the best shape the team has ever been in”, he said of the Euros squad, who will be in Turkey from October 1 to October 10. Also in their group are world champions from 2014, Russia, as well as England and Greece.
“Realistically, if we came out sixth, we’d be happy, but we are actually aiming for medals,” said Simon.
Not only is he the founder of the sport in an Irish context, Simon is also the founder and general secretary of the recently formed European Amputee Football Federation, which is the governing body for amputee football in Europe and is linked in with UEFA.
“What we are trying to do in Europe is set a model for how the rest of the world should be. There are over 55 countries in the world playing now, there’s a lot of work to get us to the paralympics – you need a classification, anti-doping, and things like that.
“We just get out there and play football, that’s what it’s about. Next year we are going to try and start the leagues. Even if we could start with four provinces, and get one or two clubs like Shamrock Rovers, Finn Harps, Limerick FC, Cork City, to try and set up regional clubs so we are not dragging people across the country. Amputee football is growing, it really is growing.”
Those interested in getting involved in amputee football, or keeping up to date with the team’s progress, can visit the Irish Amputee Football Association website.