BALLYGALLY girl Talia McDowell is an ace with a ball and counts Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish among her fans.
Talia, 12, plays for powerchair football team the Belfast Trailblazers, which is run by the Irish Football Association and regularly competes against teams from Dublin and Limerick.
The sport, also known as power soccer, is played using an oversized football which is skillfully controlled by players in electric powered wheelchairs that have customised bumpers attached.
Talia practises with her team mates weekly at the Valley Leisure Centre. However, the Trailblazers live as far apart as Newtownards and Enniskillen, which makes it difficult to get together more frequently, but Talia is so keen that she perfects her dribbling skills for an hour every week in the recently opened Ballygally Hall.
The Mitchel House pupil’s mum, Alix, is a dedicated Trailblazers fan and the four-a-side team can also count on the support of Anfield manager Kenny Dalglish, who watched the Trailblazers play Dublin rivals Sporting Fingal in an exhibition match at Ballynahinch last August. The game was organised by Northern Ireland charity Happy Children, which helps to run Liverpool FC Academy sessions, which are open to all children regardless of ability.
It was a memorable day for the Trailblazers, who won 3-2, but more importantly, they did it in front of Kenny Dalglish.
“It really was a great day for the whole team,” said Alix, who explained that Talia, who has cerebral palsy, is one of the youngest competitors.
“There are players who are in their 20s but it’s a sport that adults and children can play together and they all take it very seriously,” she added.
The Trailblazers were only recently formed, but are already a match for their more experienced opponents in this very competitive team sport. It is hoped that international games will be arranged in the future.
“Everybody wants to play at the highest level they can and there are moves to have powerchair football included in the Paralympics,” Alix revealed. Unfortunately, it won’t happen in time for London 2012 or even Brazil 2016, but that will not deter a growing lobby of supporters pressing for inclusion in 2020.
In the meantime, Talia is grateful to have a venue close to home where she can put in those extra hours of training. Alix said: “The Ballygally Hall is ideal for practice because it has a gym-based surface. There isn’t enough room for Talia to practise at home and outside surfaces are hard on the wheelchair tyres.
“Unfortunately, the hall isn’t big enough to host matches, which are played at quite a high speed,”
The dedicated Trailblazer fan base includes Talia’s good friend, 11-year-old Regan Towell, who presented coach Sharlene Rainey with a cheque for over £400 to help the team, who use purpose-built competition chairs. Regan raised the funds by organising a fun day at Wellington Rec FC.
n Anyone who is interested in playing powerchair football or fund raising for the team can contact Alan Crooks, IFA Development Manager for Disability, on 0789 461 4324.
The Trailblazers have hosted a one-day tournament at the Valley and plan to stage another soon.