Over the course of last season, we ran a series of features in the Official Matchday Programme with some Arsenal-supporting London 2012 Olympic hopefuls. We continue with sitting volleyball star Rob Richardson...
Sitting volleyball is a one of the most fast-paced and exciting Paralympic sports, and Great Britain are skippered by Arsenal supporter Rob Richardson.
Played using volleyball rules by two teams of six on a 10m x 6m indoor court divided by a 1.15m net, sitting volleyball has made giant leaps over recent years with funding to the fore, and the men’s team now have a realistic chance of competing for a medal at London 2012.
First things first, why Arsenal Rob?
My dad [Brian Richardson], played cricket for Warwickshire and his older brothers, Peter and Dick, also played professionally – they were the first brothers to play together for England.Uncle Peter played many times for his country and was Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1957. He was a good friend of Denis Compton and brought him home for Sunday lunch one day when my dad was about 13 or 14.
Compton was so famous it must have been like taking David Beckham home for tea and with Denis being an Arsenal player, my dad decided the Gunners were for him and he passed that support down to me and I grew up going down to Highbury with dad and my brother.
Early Arsenal memories?
Mickey Thomas scoring at Anfield and my dad giving me a little bit of champagne to celebrate – I was eight! My mum always reminds me that I used to dance around a coffee table in the front room with a football, pretending to be Mickey Thomas. I think the player I loved the most in my early days was Anders Limpar though, he had such flair and scored some amazing goals.
The thing I remember most about my first game when I was very young was Daley Thompson! We were in a hospitality box at Highbury for a game and I remember him being in the next box and I was very excited about that! It must have been in the early 1990s, I can’t even remember who we played.
But my absolute highlight as a kid was the League Cup Final in 1993. I was standing with my brother next to the Wembley steps when the players came down with the trophy. I’d just had an operation to have my leg lengthened and was on crutches. As the players came down the steps they saw me and thought ‘let’s celebrate with this poor kid on crutches’. People like Merse and Wrighty were hugging me and high-fiving, it was an amazing experience.
How did you become involved with sitting volleyball?
I was born with a deformity to my right leg and had lots of operations as a child. When I was 15 the doctors said to me that to keep my foot it could take ten operations in ten years or I could have one operation to amputate my foot.
I was really into sport, playing football and also cricket for Surrey juniors but I wasn’t as mobile as the other lads and it was getting worse so I said ‘what’s going to get me playing football and cricket again’ and I decided to have the amputation. After that I just tried to fit in with my friends and was playing football again and it was only when the announcement was made that we’d won the games in 2005 that people said ‘why don’t you try and get involved?’
I hadn’t been involved in any Paralympic sport but got in touch with the British Paralympic Association. I had a tenuous link to volleyball because I had taken time out after school to go to Australia and had played there, though to be honest it was more about being around the girls! Anyway they said they were just starting up the sport and I came in at the very beginning which was a trial in a shack in Uxbridge!
What are the rules and what position do you play?
I’m a ‘setter’, basically the little lad who knocks it up for the big blokes to smash – we’ve got guys in the side who are 6’7” and 6’9”. I like to see myself as the Dennis Bergkamp role, creating for others – I’m not sure my teammates quite see it like that!
I’ve played every international since we started and have 57 caps now and became captain last year. The rules are the same as standing volleyball except you have to always keep part of your backside on the floor. It’s difficult initially because you have to retrain your brain as your instinct is to push yourself up towards the ball. It’s a great game though, and very inclusive, you don’t need a wheelchair, just a net and a ball and kids love it.
I’m an ambassador for Sainsbury’s and I was at Sainsbury’s Super Saturday on Clapham Common recently and 300 kids came and played our sport which is getting on the map now and that’s really exciting.
Have GB come a long way since you started?
We’ve made unbelievable strides. There are 56 teams in the world and when I started we were dead last but now we’ve broken into the top ten and are ninth in the world. Funding has allowed us to train more than any other team and we’ve made great progress and the structure is now in place for us to qualify for the Rio Games and beyond.
Realistically, Iran and Bosnia are strong favourites for gold and silver this year but if we get a good draw out of our group, we can really aim for bronze. It surprises people that Bosnia and Iran dominate but Paralympian sport works like this sometimes. The conflict in Bosnia and the Iran/Iraq war meant many people became disabled with low amputations from landmines. Bosnia are basically a team of 6’9” former soldiers.
We are playing in the Excel Centre where the boxing is in the Olympics. The capacity is 8,000, which is pretty scary. At the world championships this year in the US there were 2,500 and we played the US so that was pretty spicy – it was nice to win that one. There will be great expectations on us, which is something we have already spoken about dealing with.