THE allure of playing abroad has left Leeds Spiders with a rejuvenation project on their hands.
Tucked inside Morley Leisure Centre, the wheelchair basketball club are focusing on the future with just three first-team players among their ranks.
It’s a testament to a standard of coaching that has seen the Spiders become one of the top clubs in the UK, with players moving on to represent the likes of Great Britain, Pakistan and Portugal.
Head coach Josh Gardner, whose father Andy took over the running of the club a decade ago, says it’s about investing in the next crop of talent after the side became ‘too good’ and watched a huge first-team cohort move on to foreign shores.
While the financial rewards of wheelchair basketball remain effectively non-existent in this country, the sport remains the largest provider of regular physical activity for wheelchair users in the UK.
The club has arguably been a victim of their own success but Gardner says now is the time to start rebuilding.
“We’re struggling at the minute because we’ve got too good,” said the 22-year-old. “What we didn’t realise, and we didn’t think about this at the start, is streaming our games and really publicising our players and what we do made all these professional sides who pay people to play come in and steal them all which is fantastic.
“In England, wheelchair basketball is like Sunday League football.
“It’s voluntary, you have to pay to play, you put your own milege in, you pay your registration fees like you would in any sport in the UK and then when someone offers you money to play you’re going to snap their hands off. We’ve done really well over the last 10 years to produce some fantastic players who’ve played not just in basketball at the Paralympics but murderball [as well] and wheelchair racers who’ve gone out and won medals.”
Gardner has played the sport since he was nine years old after he lost the use of his legs following a battle with transverse myelitis, a rare inflammation of the spinal cord. He also never regained feeling in his left hand and found the social benefits of being involved helped after struggling to fit in at school.
What we didn’t realise, and we didn’t think about this at the start, is streaming our games and really publicising our players and what we do made all these professional sides who pay people to play come in and steal them all which is fantastic.Head coach Josh Gardner
“I started coaching courses when I was 11 or 12,” he said.
“At school in PE I wasn’t allowed to do anything, so I was trying to prove that I can do PE if I want to do PE and I can coach if I want to coach.
“When I started at nine in basketball at school there was no-one in a wheelchair, I was the only one.
“Anywhere I’d go I’d be the only person in a wheelchair, then I went to basketball and it’s full of people in wheelchairs and in the same situation.
“When you go on a trip to an away game, you might only be going to Sheffield, but it’s like a little school trip for some of these kids.
“It was brilliant because when I got to international level and playing for Yorkshire, England and Great Britain, you get those other trips away. Just having that opportunity to go abroad and play sport is quite rare.”
The first team have taken a break from competing in the top league in the country and are focusing on starting again with the development squad, which has around 15-20 members.
“We’ve had a lot of people in the past who don’t even like sport, don’t like basketball, who come once and they’re still playing, like me, nearly 15 years later,” he said.
“We have people who have a toe missing to a leg missing, and two arms and a leg missing. We’ve got a complete range of disabilities. We do actually let able-bodied people play as well.
“Even if you don’t like sport or don’t like basketball and you have a disability then come and have a go.”
Club: Leeds Spiders Wheelchair Basketball Club. Based: 16 Primrose Lane, Halton, Leeds, LS15 7HR. Training (Thursday 8-10pm) at Morley Leisure Centre, Queensway, Morley, Leeds, LS27 9JP
Founded: 2007. Number of members: Approximately, 20 but looking to recruit. Contact: Andy Gardner, 07769938798. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org