WHEN the Covid-19 Pandemic struck, sports clubs across the UK were thrust into a limbo-like state of uncertainty, yet few teams would have had it tougher than the Bolton Bullets.

Their sport - powerchair football - is played by wheelchair-users with a high level of impairment, so extra precaution had to be taken, even as restrictions were eased.

But on Friday evenings at Smithills Sports Centre in Bolton, they are finally starting to take off the handbrakes.

The early December chill and the lack of movability of many of the players means they can get bitterly cold very quickly, but despite this they drape themselves in blankets and get on with the game, determined not to lose any more time.

It is clear the intensity of the sport is every bit equal to its able-bodied equivalent, the large (33cm diameter) ball ricocheting around the hall at a dizzying pace as the chairs zip after it, weaving in and out of each other and occasionally crashing together.

The club formed in 2007 when a group of teachers and parents at Sharples School noticed a number of students who were using motorised wheelchairs wanted to partake in sport but had no access.

From that humble beginning the project branched out over a number of years and they now compete in the North West Powerchair League.

“It’s just kept growing and growing and growing really,” says Elizabeth Kaminska, the chairman of the club, who is now actively looking for new players.

Club secretary Shirley Whittaker concurs, stressing it has been a “slow burn” getting things back together after so long apart and a struggle to find sufficient funding.

One particular evening, Pete Wyman, who helps run another team, Greenbank from Liverpool, has arrived to deliver three new powerchairs - personally designed by himself.

Whittaker’s excitement at the new arrivals is palpable, jumping up and performing an impromptu jig while declaring: “It’s like Christmas has come early.”

Wyman, essentially the Mr Gadget of the North West powerchair world, runs Power Sport Engineering - a not-for-profit company based in Liverpool who manufacture the ‘Equaliser Chair’.

His company was established as an antidote to the access barriers to powerchair participation, namely extortionate prices.

Commonly used American-imported chairs, for example, often cost more than £8,000.

As Whittaker says, “anything to do with disability and the price goes up”.

The manufacturing process of the ‘Equaliser’ is still expensive, but Wyman’s chairs are roughly half the price of the American ‘Strikeforce’ equivalent - making the game more accessible.

This coupled with the newly-announced Football Association ‘Football Your Way’ plan (the Bullets have recently received some FA funding) to raise awareness and promote disability football over a three year period means the sport has reason to be hopeful.

Wyman’s design includes a computerised screen on the arm of the chair that gauges speed and various other metrics - which have to fall within strict guidelines set out by the WFA (Wheelchair Football Association).

And the chairs can be fitted with all sorts of additional custom features suited to a player’s specific needs.

Seventeen-year-old Noah Cunningham, for example, has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which causes limited movement in most of his body.

A customised miniature joystick Wyman has fitted means he can operate the chair using the tips of his fingers, only requiring the slightest movements to hit top speeds of 10 kilometres per hour.

Bumpers fitted at the front are used to strike the ball, as well as protecting the players when collisions occur.

And as Luke Kelly, who plays for National Premier League leading West Brom but is helping with the coaching in Bolton, says: “This is a far more technical game that people give it credit for.

“The fact that it’s only four-a-side means you can’t carry anyone. Every single player has to be firing all cylinders.”

Owing to the immunocompromised condition of many of the players, the pandemic meant extra caution had to be taken, with severely limited social contact.

“It has definitely affected us,” added Whittaker.

“Lots of the players here very much rely on this club to be able to see their friends and have a laugh and be active.”

Another mother says her daughter, Mellisa, who has been a member of the team for more than a decade, was at a loss.

She said: “I got her doing various online courses and bits to keep her occupied but she really missed being here. This is what she loves doing most.”

As such, and despite the success the team has had, Whittaker is keen to stress that winning is not the only motivation.

Her son Steven was the only person in a wheelchair at his school, which was isolating and at times difficult.

She said: “He came here and found people he can relate to. The social side of it has helped him blossom.

“Loads of kids still don’t even realise this is an option for them so we’re really trying to get the message out now and say ‘come on down!’”

If you’re interested in joining the Bolton Bullets contact Shirley Whittaker on 07771 632190 or email secretary@boltonbullets.co.uk.