The inaugural EAFF Champions League tournament takes place in Tbilisi, Georgia this weekend and reigning Irish Amputee Football Association National League champions Cork City FC are there to raise the flag on behalf of Cork and Ireland.
A 14-strong group left Cork on Thursday morning will arrive in the Georgian capital ahead of the main action after a brief layover in Istanbul. The squad is primarily made up of the players that secured the national title for Cork City last season; however, four players from rivals Bohemian FC and Shamrock Rovers have been added to the squad to add depth for the tournament.
“The Irish National League is the newest in Europe so we’re still playing 5-a-side games at the moment, whereas international games are 7-a-side. At 11, ours will be the smallest squad there but we’ve prepared as well as we can and we’re hoping to make at least a semi-final,” manager and More than a Club Assistant Co-ordinator Chris McDermott explained.
“The National League was very tight last year, with every team taking points off the other. We didn’t start as well as we would have liked to but it’s a testimony to the lads we have involved that they kept at it and pulled the rug out from under Bohs on the final day. We literally won the title in the final minutes of the season; it was a fantastic achievement.”
Knowing that a Champions League outing was on the horizon, planning for this season has had a dual focus: try to retain their title while preparing for the inaugural pan-European tournament with limited time and resources. Group opposition comes in the form of Dinamo Altai (Russia) and local club AFC Tbilisi. If they progress, Cork City could face Everton FC, friends from last summer Legia Warsaw, or professional Turkish outfit Ortotek Gaziler.
“In Ireland, our focus is growing what we have right now and improving the player base,” Chris continues. “The League has improved this year. The games are tighter as the teams know each other very well at this stage. We play every 3 weeks in a round-robin format. However, we’ve been playing at different venues, near where artificial limb centres have been established in the hope that we can encourage more players to take up the sport. We were in Belfast recently, for example, where they are starting up a team. We have a fixture in Galway coming up too and the hope would be that something similar could start there in the coming years.”
The 2018 CCFC squad had a mixture of experience and fresh blood, and both were vital in clinching success. Chris also credits Chris McElligott and Simon Baker, who leads the sport at European and world level, as driving forces behind the development of the sport in Ireland.
“There are two guys here – Kevin Cahillane and David Saunders – that wanted to see a club started in Cork. They are legends of the game and have been involved in amputee football in Ireland since the beginning, with 60, maybe 70 caps between them. They have great experience of tournament football, which will be a huge help to me and (coach) John (O’Flynn) in the coming days. They have full-time jobs, but they are training four to five times a week and playing games on top of that.
“Then you have the newer guys – the likes of Rory Murphy and Fergal Duffy. They didn’t know anything about the sport and have gone on to win the League in their first season and since been capped for Ireland at the World Cup in Mexico last summer. Rory plays up front and was named Irish international amputee player for 2018, an incredible achievement, while Fergal was the second-choice goalkeeper for his country at a World Cup without knowing much about the sport until it came to Cork.
“Amputee football is perceived as a disability sport but jaws drop when people see it. It’s fast, it’s elite, it’s athletic. Streaming the Champions League games will give the sport much more profile and hopefully amputees here will see it and want to get involved.”
Chris works on Cork City FC’s More than a Club community programme alongside Erika Ní Thuama and John O’Flynn, and has spent every spare minute of recent weeks seeking out sponsors and support to fund the squad’s trip to Georgia. They venture into the relative unknown but are keen to at least put forward their own abilities as a playing group.
“We did get a video of one of Tbilisi’s games and we saw some highlights of Ortotek Gaziler, as that league is professional and has its own highlights show! We’re focused on how we want to play ourselves though, and myself and John have a Plan B if something doesn’t quite fit into our game. We did manage to get everyone together in Bishopstown a couple of weeks ago but it’s been a busy fixture list between National League games and internationals,” Chris adds.
“We’ve no specific targets set for ourselves but we know what our abilities are. A lot of the players have international experience and they have their own standards they want to live up to too. We expect to do reasonably well. Hopefully, we can progress from the group stages but we go into the tournament ranked 6th of six teams. Irish teams have always done well though, so we certainly not writing ourselves off.”
Cork City have two group fixtures lined up for Saturday. First, the Rebel Army take on Dinamo Altai (Russia) at 10.45am (Irish time), before an encounter against local hosts AFC Tbilisi at 2pm (Irish time). The semi-finals and final will be played on Sunday, as well as the 3rd and 5th place play-off games – guaranteeing all clubs involved two busy days of action. All games will be streamed live on the EAFF’s Facebook page (facebook.com/EuroAMP/).
Amputee squad profiles: