‘I feel very fortunate’ Power play - Sean McKinney living the dream after World Cup exploits

Belfast teenager determined to reach big stage in Buenos Aires next time around after starring with Northern Ireland in Sydney. Neil Loughran hears his story...

Powerchair footballer Sean McKinney with proud dad, Sean sr. Picture by Mark Marlow (" ")

SEAN McKinney is fairly typical of most teenagers.

A football crest on the bathroom door of his newly-renovated bedroom - Celtic in this case - the love of PlayStation and gaming online with friends, and the end of week weariness that five straight days of school brings by the time Friday evening rolls around.

In the middle of GCSEs at St Malachy’s College, the serious stuff is already under way, but it doesn’t take long to work out how much intrigue the wider world holds for the 16-year-old.

From initial shyness, Sean’s passion for life shines through as the conversation unfolds, eventually crossing continents by its end, with everything from Irish history, a fascination with the footballing culture of Buenos Aires and the Trans-Siberian railway among the many topics covered.

It makes sense that history and geography are his favourite subjects, but school is only a small part of what makes the Newtownabbey teenager tick. Let’s look at it this way - how many of his school-mates have already competed at the highest level of their chosen sport?

Even with former Republic of Ireland boss Martin O’Neill and renowned pole-vaulter Mike Bull among the former alumni at St Malachy’s, Sean is already rubbing shoulders with them all.

Back in October he was part of the first Northern Ireland team ever to compete at the FIFPA Powerchair World Cup, the squad finally travelling to Australia after Covid twice put the kibosh on the competition.

With an eye to the sky, heading Down Under held instant appeal – the high point, so far, of a sporting journey happened upon by chance, and one which has drastically changed his life for the better.

Before we get into that, though, a bit of background - what is Powerchair football?

A fast-paced version of football adapted for electric wheelchair users, typically played on a 30m x 18m court where two teams of four pass, dribble and spin-kick an oversized, 13 inch ball.

Take in a training session with Sean’s club, Trailblazers, at their new Newforge Lane home any Friday night, or one Sunday a month when the north’s finest gather, and the technique and control required to compete are soon evident.

The specially-designed chairs are so quick, and so sensitive to handle, that mastery is far from a foregone conclusion.

“It is the fastest-growing disability sport in the world,” says Sean’s father Sean sr who, alongside wife Cathy, is a huge supporter of the sport and his son’s role in it.

“Powerchair was actually started back in the 1970s when a few French teachers came up with the idea of devising a sport for wheelchair users…”

Yet progress would take time.

To illustrate the significant strides made in recent years, metal footguards are attached to the front of the ultra-modern chairs, allowing for maximum power and accuracy. Less than 20 years ago, however, Scott Hilland – the Northern Ireland captain in Australia – was among those playing with a milk crate strapped to the front instead.

Now, Powerchair has its own governing body and inter-continental structures, with the IFA offering whatever support it can to encourage further participation.

Since stumbling upon the sport, it has opened Sean jr’s eyes to a different world.

Born with muscular dystrophy, but determined to live an active and competitive life, he wanted to find something to call his own.

At a disability sports day in Donaghmore, Sean had a go at wheelchair badminton, basketball and rugby, while a previous attempt at frame football didn’t last long. As soon as he tried out Powerchair football though, he knew.

“After that, I didn’t want to do anything else,” he smiles.

“When we started we had old chairs that were outdated - if we still had them we’d get beat every week. These are Strikeforce chairs, specifically designed for football.

“If I’m really honest, I’ve been at it for six years and I still have a long way to go. It takes a long time to master.

“But I just loved it from the start - the speed, the power the guys can get behind the ball when passing or shooting, the dribbling. The control of the chairs is amazing…”

“For the lay person,” adds Cathy, “it would be like getting into a bumper car and you’ve no control over it.”

“I have to say the school has been brilliant too,” adds Sean sr, “all the staff at St Malachy’s, teaching and non-teaching, have been very supportive. If Sean’s going somewhere to compete, it’s no problem.

“Sean’s the only student at the school in a wheelchair, and I’ve been asked countless times ‘is there anything more we could be doing? Is everything okay?’ They’ve been top class.”

NI Powerchair football team Carl McVeigh, Patrick Comiskey, Sean McKinney, Scott Hilland and Bartlomiej Kuszkowski with their parents and IFA president Conrad Kirkwood. Picture by Mark Marlow (" ")

Having grown up watching Craig Gordon between the sticks with Celtic, and later Liverpool’s Brazilian number one Alisson, it was only fitting that Sean would follow in their goalkeeping footsteps.

Two years after taking up Powerchair, he was the youngest player competing at the European Championships. Next summer he will be in Paris with his Trailblazers team-mates for the Champions League.

Using a headset to aid communication with his team-mates, Sean’s role goes much further than saving shots – using his instinct and awareness to snuff out danger and set his side on then attack.

His enthusiasm and commitment have only grown in the years between, regardless of personal challenges faced. In terms of accomplishments, though, experiencing a World Cup will take some beating.

Northern Ireland travelled to Sydney as the only team without a world ranking, and with a single goal in mind – to avoid finishing last of the 10 countries competing in their first crack at the big one.

“Thankfully we didn’t,” says Sean, after a series of battling performances saw them claim ninth spot.

“Most of the games were tough, we had to do a lot of defending, but I knew that would be the case. The way we play, the goalkeeper is pretty aggressive, so you have to think of your positioning, try and predict what players might do to make sure I can react.

“A lot of the other teams and coaches were saying had it not been for a bit of luck here or there, we could have finished higher.

“As an experience though, for our first World Cup, and just for us all to go out there and be treated so well, and with such respect, it was really special.”

To mark the occasion the team was invited to an official reception at the consulate general in Sydney, with Northern Ireland picking up the Fair Play award and Sean’s team-mate, Patrick Comiskey, receiving an award for indomitable spirit.

Patrick’s father, Patrick sr, passed away back in Monaghan while other family members were on the other side of the world, yet they saw out the tournament before returning home.

“Patrick was there with his mum and two brothers, and obviously all our thoughts were with them,” says Sean sr.

“The family got together and decided that was Patrick’s big moment, and they were staying on. The funeral was held back, Patrick stayed on and played brilliantly, played his heart out, especially when you consider what he was facing.

“We met Patrick’s dad many times, a great guy, so it was all very sad. All his team-mates rallied around and supported him.”

That’s the thing about Powerchair – it isn’t just the athletes who become immersed, but those closest to them. Cathy, for example, has a Mr T-esque aversion to planes.

“She’s absolutely terrified of flying,” says Sean sr, “though what made it a lot easier was that the IFA Foundation – whose support is just incredible – had us in business class the whole way.”

Still there were psychological obstacles to overcome, but there was no way Cathy was going to miss her son’s big moment.

“If you had said to me there’s a trip to Australia and it’s free, I’d have said no thank you. But because my wee man was going over, I had to be there to cheer him on. We were proud as punch.”

“The camaraderie amongst everyone was amazing,” adds Sean sr.

“All 10 teams were staying in the same hotel, so everybody was watching the guys play, then after they were all on the PlayStation – you just heard the laughing and you knew where they were. Sometimes you were wondering where they got the energy.

“And the thing about it is while these guys have all had a lot of support to do this, they all put a huge amount in as well. From Sean’s point of view, that’s not something he always acknowledges, but we see how seriously he takes it and just what it means to him.

“It’s his passion for it that has got him to where he is - all his hard work has paid off.”

Sean McKinney with Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill

Yet the extent of Sean’s ambition does not end there.

In the corner of the family living room sits an Argentina flag, given to Sean when he was named man-of-the-match after Northern Ireland’s draw with the Albiceleste in Sydney. Having had a taste of the World Cup, and as a huge fan of Lionel Messi, his dream is to be in Buenos Aires for the next one in 2026.

“I’m a big Messi fan – I saw him play at Parkhead...”

“He was the only one cheering when Messi scored against Celtic,” laughs Cathy, “one of the stewards was joking with him that he was going to start a riot.”

Beyond the World Cup, the 2028 Paralympics in Los Angeles are creeping onto the radar as the case for Powerchair’s inclusion grows. No matter what the future holds, however, Sean’s story is one that holds life lessons for everyone, the transformative impact of sport in all its guises knowing no bounds.

“Powerchair means absolutely everything to me,” says Sean jr, “I feel very fortunate to play my favourite sport at international level.”

“That sums up Sean’s attitude,” adds Sean sr, “he never complains - never. He might growl now and again if you go in too early in the morning, but in terms of the challenges Sean faces with his condition, he just gets on with it.

“Sean’s going to enjoy life, he’s very determined to do so. When you consider the challenges Sean and his team-mates face, he still uses the word ‘fortunate’ to describe himself. I love that.”

“It’s the truth,” adds Sean jr, “because in Sydney we all got to live the dream.”