The second Flyerz Festival of Disability Hockey was a day that could have defined the word “inclusive”: 90 disabled hockey players, 11 England hockey internationals, and 15 non-disabled youth players… all playing alongside each other in a fun yet competitive tournament. Players gave everything they could to win their matches; yet every game was played in a spirit of camaraderie, friendship and great sportsmanship.
Jamie Hooper, Chair of the European Hockey Federation Youth Panel, summed up the day: “Having been a small part of the Flyerz Festival last year it was incredible to see the progression to the size of the event this year. It was breathtaking to see the support from the England players: their attitude, patience and encouragement with the players was spectacular. Disability hockey is spreading quickly across England and it is a testament to the hard work by Pani and the rest of her team, and I can’t wait for 2015 to see what disability hockey will bring at the EuroHockey Championships in London.”
This event highlighted how far disability hockey has come in England; both in terms of numbers and standard. When Forest Flyerz started less than 3 years ago, they were the only club with a disability section; there are now 8 clubs with a Flyerz section, and that number looks set to double next season. As more clubs around England continue to set up their own Flyerz section, more and more disabled players will have the opportunity to play hockey.
Whilst Flyerz events may still be small in comparison to other events, in terms of impact on the players it really doesn’t get much bigger. One of the Forest Flyerz parents said: “I must say I was really impressed by the quality of play on Saturday from everyone especially my son Shane who I haven’t seen play for a long while due to illness. He scored a goal in every match he played, I am so proud of him and what he has achieved, all thanks to this wonderful person Pani and her fantastic team of volunteers who turn up through rain or shine to train our super super talented children with Special Needs. I know all the parents join with me to say a big thank you to all for having the vision to start a Special Needs Hockey Team. Look how far we have come. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU.“
The Festival was split into two levels so players of all standards could compete. The lower level saw five teams compete in a 5-a-side tournament on a small pitch, played without goal-keepers and standard hockey rules – the only concession being that players at this level were allowed on-pitch support (and umpires were more lenient). The overall feeling one picked up from the players was pure delight; players having fun competing to the best of their ability.
The 5-a-side event was won by Solihull Flyerz South (playing with England’s Andy Bull); a team of characters who kept us laughing all day – by all accounts their coach trip to London was pretty noisy!!! One of their players said after the event “It was exciting to meet so many other players from different clubs, and I really enjoyed playing with the England players – they were brilliant. Most of all I enjoyed the goal I scored and winning a medal.”
The higher level event saw 10 teams compete (including 3 non-disabled teams and 3 Dutch teams) in a 6-a-side tournament on a quarter pitch, played with goal-keepers and standard hockey rules. Matches were closely fought throughout, and the two teams who made the final were Phoenix Flyerz (playing with England’s Maddie Hinch) and Flying Dutch (the reigning champions, playing with England’s Susie Gilbert). Both teams produced some great play, and enjoyed lots of side line support from the other teams and volunteers. Phoenix Flyerz won 3-0.
The England players who attended the event were Ben Arnold, Sophie Bray, Andy Bull, Susie Gilbert, Maddie Hinch, Shona McCallin, Lily Owsley, Zoe Shipperley, Susannah Townsend, Laura Unsworth, and Ollie Willars, accompanied by England men’s manager Andy Halliday.
Andy Halliday spoke on behalf of the players: “As members of our International squads, we are enthused to be able to support projects such as Flyerz disability hockey. It’s great to see so many smiling faces, inspired by the opportunity to play hockey. These fantastic projects give so many young people a chance to participate in our sport. I know that our squad members derive much personal inspiration from attending Flyerz activity. Saturday’s brilliant festival in Redbridge was no exception. It was so rewarding to see both English and Dutch teams participating.“
Pani Theodorou, event organiser, said “These events always leave us on a high! The teams and volunteers always inspire me, and the England players as always have been wonderful – from the moment they were allocated to a team they became fully invested in them; I can’t say enough good things about them. I’m honoured they’re part of our Flyerz family, and I hope they realise what a difference their support makes.”
“As for our own club, I’m proud that Forest Flyerz has taken its rightful place alongside our adult, youth and beginners sections. We also have the most amazing team of volunteers; fully committed to the player’s development and enjoyment of the game. I’d urge all clubs to set up a Flyerz section – it’s the most fun you can have on a hockey pitch!”
The final word comes from our long-time friends and supporters Access Sport “What a brilliant day! The smiles at the end of the day on the faces of the players, parents, volunteers and England Hockey players summed up what the Flyerz Festival was all about! To me, it illustrated the potential for the future – there is a lot of work still to be done to break down the barriers that prevent people playing hockey and we aim to continue working to ensure that hockey really is a sport for all.”
Source and photographs: Waltham Forest Hockey Club