In March 2011, Neil Hoey faced the life-changing experience of losing his leg. Now, just a decade later, the Dubliner is preparing to take centre stage at the European Amputee Football Championship in Krakow, Poland. It will be a staggering third major international competition for the Irish winger at just 21 years of age.
As a lover of the outdoors, much of Hoey’s childhood revolved around his interest in scouting. Unbelievably, it was actually at scout camp in August 2010, when one stereotypical childhood occurrence paved the way for the youngster’s eventual evolution into an Irish footballer. Having fallen from a fellow scout member’s back, the then-11-year-old broke his leg, a simple incident which would go on to have dire consequences. The next few months proved extremely difficult as the injury failed to heal, resulting in further examinations. It soon became apparent that a broken leg was the least of Hoey’s worries; cancer had been discovered. Osteosarcoma, to be exact. Had it not been for that random fall at scout camp, who is to say how long it would have taken for the cancer to be detected?
It quickly became evident that the cancer was going to have a significant impact on Hoey’s life. With his supportive family by his side, the youth was presented with what was effectively a limb or life situation. No more than four months had passed after the diagnosis, when Hoey’s left leg was amputated. By the summer of 2011, Neil had acquired a prosthetic leg, a moment which marked the beginning of a new phase of his life. Never one to be fazed by such an ordeal, the Irishman has always embraced the challenges put his way and even refers to himself as ‘Hop Along Hoey’.
Unbeknownst to the 11-year-old who was dealing with his world being turned upside down, Kevin Brady, Chris McElligott and Simon Baker were at the same time setting the wheels in motion to create The Irish Amputee Football Association, an organisation that would go on to become an integral part of Hoey’s life. The IAFA operate under the FAI’s Football For All programme and provide any person with an amputation, congenital deficiency, or other limb affecting disorder with the opportunity to access amputee football at all levels.
“I’ve been involved throughout the IAFA journey except really during its first year because that was the year I was losing my leg. How I came about playing was that one of the lads at the end of my road, Kevin Brady, was one of the three who helped set up the association in 2011. When he heard that I was losing my leg, he spoke to my Mam and Dad, and then I got involved from quite an early stage.”
“But because I was only 12 or 13, it was very hard to get me involved with adults at the time. At the start I trained a bit with the lads, where they had restrictions on tackling me and stuff like that. But then on top of that we branched out into having a junior amputee football team, so I was playing with them as well for a while. It made a massive difference, like it meant that I could actually have a game of football with other kids,” Hoey recalled.
Prior to his operation in 2011, soccer had never been of interest to the now-Ireland-international, who instead put a lot of focus on his hurling development with Whitehall Colmcille GAA. Hoey is open in his admission that he initially struggled to get to grips with the more intricate aspects of the beautiful game, however the former St Aidan’s CBS man is eager to put his developed qualities into practice on the European stage.
“On a personal level, my understanding of the game has massively increased. I was never a massive soccer head. I used to be more into my hurling and stuff so soccer to me was alien. My understanding of the game, my spatial awareness and my movements into space have all definitely improved,” Hoey stated.
Despite sharing countless similarities with regular football, amputee football requires players to place specific focus on the manner in which they train, as to give their body the best chance to perform at its maximum capacity while using crutches. As a winger, it is integral that Hoey finds the perfect balance between maintaining the sheer upper-body strength required to navigate around the pitch on the crutches, as well as concentrating on agility and speedwork.
“Training activity depends on what type of player you want to be on the crutches. You can go for the bulking option which can help you become a good solid defender, but for me personally I’m a winger so I do a lot of running, and a lot of my training focus would be on controlling the ball and short sprints on the crutches. My workouts would be more so HIIT workouts rather than weightlifting. There’s a bit of shoulder work and back work, but that’s more from a strength point of view and for injury prevention,” Hoey said.
As a collective, the Irish squad are determined to learn from past mistakes in an attempt to help drive continuous improvement. The Boys in Green bowed out of the 2018 Amputee Football World Cup in Mexico at the last-16 stage, and Hoey believes that the team have identified potential avenues for improvement:
“Our fitness going away to this tournament is phenomenal compared to past competitions. It’s one thing that we’re constantly working on. As well as that our technical level has improved massively, whether that be making a simple pass back and forth, just a one-two pass, them kind of pass and move jobs. We’re working on utilising much more precise movement and everyone understands it better.”
The tournament will consist of 14 teams, all vying for the opportunity of becoming European champions. Kicking off on September 12th, the weeklong event will culminate with the competition’s final on September 19th. The 13-man Ireland squad travelled to Krakow on Friday morning, and have been drawn in Group C alongside Belgium, Germany and Russia. Hoey is hopeful that the Green Army can emerge from the group stage and push on into the latter stages of the competition, knowing that a top six finish would spell fantastic news for Chris McElligott’s side, as it would seal 2022 World Cup qualification:
“We’re hoping to get as far as we can to be honest. We’ll definitely be aiming to get out of the group. There’s no reason we can’t get top-six. We have a strong team and a squad that’s very competitive. We’re confident.”
Just as it has for the highest profile sports people across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a colossal impact on the manner in which the Irish team could prepare for the task at hand. Since the World Cup in Mexico three years ago, international action has been few and far between for McElligott’s side, with a friendly against Poland in 2019 representing the Boys in Green’s last outing.
The prevailing buoyant atmosphere in the Irish camp despite the fact that the competition was delayed by a year is a testament to the never-say-die attitude that McElligott has instilled in his players. This winning mentality was epitomised by the Irish players’ willingness to dig in and find alternative ways to remain sharp and active while the coronavirus pandemic was wreaking havoc.
“Zoom calls were a pain and trying to do HIIT sessions online was just disgraceful to say the least, but you get through them because everyone is there and you’re doing it for the team. But at the end of the day you can’t kick a football over a zoom call, and that’s what we are, a football team, not a workout team,” Hoey said.
The rules of international amputee football differ considerably to those of the League of Ireland. Euro 2021 will feature seven-a-side matches with 25-minute halves, as opposed to the 12 and a half minute halves played out by five-a-side teams at domestic level. Notwithstanding that the shorter league games aren’t the idyllic means of preparation for international tournaments, the establishment of the national amputee football league has still played a pivotal role in the development of the Irish squad’s skills.
“It makes a massive impact because you’re talking about going from having one or two international games a year to maybe having nine or ten games. You’re getting regular game time and it’s against other amputees,” Hoey declared.
The league, which is made up of Cork City, Shamrock Rovers and Hoey’s Bohemians side, is currently on a hiatus in an attempt to allow the 13 men selected for the European Championship to fully dedicate themselves to international training, as well as in the hope of preventing any unnecessary injury concerns. The three clubs have all been involved with the league since the outset, a mark of solidarity that Hoey deeply respects:
“In fairness to them, they’ve been great at supporting us. Each of the players would tell you the same. They support us really well in whatever way we need. We played in a tournament in Germany with Bohs a little while ago, and the club put us on their social media pages and everything like that. They were as proud of us going over there as they would be of any of their other teams, so it was great to see.
Due to the current lack of domestic action, in an effort to mix up their training regime, the Irish squad sometimes test themselves against non-amputee sides. Only recently, McElligott’s outfit took on Esker Celtic FC, a task which Hoey and his teammates relished, despite the difficulty in establishing a level-playing ground.
“You’re playing lads with two legs and you’re asking them to run at half pace because obviously if they take off, they’re going to get to the ball before us on crutches every time. You’re asking them to restrict themselves but that’s hard for them to do because when you get stuck into a game of football, the last thing you’re thinking about is how fast you’re running. It’s not as realistic for us, so the league matches have definitely made a massive impact on everyone’s performances over the past few years,” Hoey asserted.
Anyone who wishes to cheer on the boys in green at Euro 2021 can watch the games here.
EAFF European Championship 2021 Group C fixtures:
- Monday, September 13 | Belgium v Ireland | KO 09:00
- Tuesday, September 14 | Ireland v Germany | KO 12:00
- Wednesday, September 15 | Russia v Ireland | KO 13:30