Alright, I have a confession to make.
This is gonna sound so bad. But let's get it out of the way.
When I was getting married to my amazing wife, Jamie, it really was the best day of my life, don't get me wrong.
But the thing is, I actually left the wedding a little bit early.
I left to go play football … really.
There’s more to it than that (promise), but I’m telling you because I want you to understand just what playing for the England powerchair football team means to me.
But the thing is, I actually left the wedding a little bit early. I left to go play football … really.- Jon Bolding
So first, I think we have to go back a bit to give you some context. Let’s go right back to the beginning, in fact.
Baby Jonathan Bolding was born on the 14th of October, 1987, to my parents, Jon and Sue. I was the youngest in a family that already had three girls. Everyone was delighted.
Except, soon they realised that something was not quite right with this baby.
After two years, my parents got the three words that made their world crumble: central core myopathy. I had been diagnosed with a rare condition that meant my muscles didn’t grow at the rate of your average person’s.
The doctors told my parents that because the condition mainly affects my legs, my muscles wouldn’t ever ever be strong enough to keep my body weight up.
In other words, they said I wouldn’t ever be able to walk.
But my parents being my parents, they simply didn’t accept that. They understood the seriousness of the condition, of course, but they are fighters, strong-minded and full of love. Basically, they are the sort of people that aren’t good at taking no for an answer — haha!
From the age of just two, they got me a pair of calipers that locked my legs into place. The result wasn’t perfect — I moved like a penguin, from side to side — but the calipers kept me up. I could walk.
From the first diagnosis, my parents kept setting objectives to make sure their son had the best possible chance in life to do and enjoy everything just like any other kid. And one thing my dad in particular didn’t want me to miss out on was football.
Through him I quickly became a football obsessive, and later I even converted him from a Brentford into an Arsenal fan. We would go to games together but, of course, more than anything, I wanted to play.
I couldn’t run. I couldn’t jump. I couldn’t tackle. I could barely kick the ball.- Jon Bolding
So, my dad took me down to Wimbledon, where they had a disability football team that met up for training sessions once a week and the odd friendly tournament at the weekends.
If you can imagine these sessions, there were people with all kinds of disabilities and conditions. At one end of the spectrum, there were lads who were missing an arm but who are still very good with their feet … and then, at the other end, there was me with my big metal calipers.
I couldn’t run. I couldn’t jump. I couldn’t tackle. I could barely kick the ball.
I was basically just an on-pitch spectator as the games happened around me, hoping for a pass that came directly to my feet.
If you ask my parents now, they’ll tell you it was properly heartbreaking for them to see their son like that. But they kept on taking me down to Wimbledon because it was football and I loved it. And, for a while, I never imagined it could get any better than that.
As I got older, the curve in my spine I’d had since birth got worse. This is not uncommon for people with disabilities like mine, but the curve was getting so bad that by the point I was 13, my parents had a decision to make.
I technically died for a minute or so on the operating table.- Jon Bolding
Without an operation, I risked getting worse to the point where I might become fully wheelchair-bound and my lungs could eventually be crushed.
But, an operation this serious was a lot for a 13-year-old, especially one with weak muscles and asthma. Let’s just say, it was no sure thing I would make it out alive. Even if it was a success, my movement was likely to be further restricted.
I didn’t really understand the magnitude of the situation at the time. How could I? I was barely a teenager. But the doctors laid out all the pros and cons to my parents. And in the end, the curve was getting so bad that my parents chose to operate.
(Just FYI, anyone squeamish might want to skip the next few paragraphs.)
Basically, the operation to fix the curve involved having two metal rods placed on either side of my spine.
How it works is that they take the disks out of the spine and allow it to go all floppy, and then they fuse the spine to these rods.
So, the surgeons had to go in through my side, break one of my ribs and deflate my lungs, in order to get to the spine to take the disks out.
And then a week later, they would then go back in for a second surgery to fuse the rods.
On top of all that, the really scary part was I actually had an allergic reaction to the anesthesia, and I technically died for a minute or so on the operating table. All I remember is I was getting very hot and flustered and then all of a sudden I passed out. When I regained consciousness, I had this massive needle in my neck. Haha!
(O.K., squeamish people can come back now.)
After the operation, I spent three weeks in the hospital and I was off school for over six months (which was great as a teenager). For the whole time, I had to wear this weird kind of plastic body-suit thing (less great) to make sure that nothing came out of place. I remember that summer was one of the hottest on record and there I am in this plastic sweatbox for seven or eight hours a day!
But what kept me going throughout it all was the thought of powerchair football.
You see, not long before my operation, I had spotted something randomly on a table at school. It was a leaflet:
POWERCHAIR FOOTBALL TOURNAMENT.
I’d never heard of “powerchair” before and had no idea of the rules. My dad had taken me to try wheelchair basketball before, but I didn’t have the upper-body strength. This was essentially football, but played by knocking the ball about with your chair.
I was actually playing football. And yeah — wow — I was actually good at it.- Jon Bolding
In order to make the modifications I needed, my dad ended up cutting up a car tire and tying half of it to the front of my NHS-issue chair with string to act as a bumper. (Fortunately, my chairs have gotten a little more sophisticated since then!)
Once there, on the basketball court at the rehabilitation centre with all the other players, one of the first things that struck me was that I’d never really been around so many disabled people in one place before. There were a couple of people at my school, and obviously I’d played at Wimbledon, but this felt different. It was like we were all the same, on a level playing field. I met people that day that have remained my friends ever since.
The rules were pretty simple — no huddling, only one-on-one tackles allowed, etc. — but the idea was mainly just to have fun and get a feel for the sport.
My team won the tournament and I scored a few goals. It was the first time in my life that I’d felt like the person who could be the dribbler, the creator, the goal scorer. Forget standing around awkwardly at Wimbledon, I was actually playing football.
And yeah — wow — I was actually good at it.
Two or three weeks after that first experience, my parents got a call from someone at Middlesex FA. She explained that they had seen my potential that day and wanted to know if I’d be interested in taking part in a trip they were putting together to send a team of powerchair players to play a few friendlies … in Japan.
This was major. I’d only played one tournament as a 13-year-old and now this! You better believe I told everyone I knew that I’d been selected to go over to Japan to play football — hahaha!
I still remember that trip like it was yesterday. It was the first time I’d been away from my parents and I was traveling halfway around the world to represent my country … O.K., it wasn’t “official” England duty, but to me it was as good as! And the best bit came right before our first game, when we got handed a bag of England shirts to play in. As I say, this wasn’t officially sanctioned, we just needed team kits that differentiated us from the opposition. (And I think these ones had been donated to charity — they were a mismatch of different years and styles.)
I got a shirt from the 2002 World Cup, if you remember that one? With the single red line down one side?
And on the back of that shirt?
Gerrard. Lampard. Bolding.
It’s been my number ever since. I have this hope that maybe someday someone else will pick number 8 because it’s Jon Bolding’s number.
We get to wear the white kit. That official white kit. The same kit that Harry Kane and Steph Houghton pull on.- Jon Bolding
From that experience, powerchair quickly took over my life. It gave me a new set of objectives. A new purpose.
I played every opportunity I could. I learned everything about the game and its quirks.
I picked up quickly that aside from bolts and pieces of your chair coming loose, the main thing to worry about is your battery. I’ve been caught out by forgetting to charge it the night before and it’s cost me! (These days, I use a manual chair for daily life and the electric one is for football only.)
I learned that inflatable tires are better for grip on the court and, personally, I prefer mine quite deflated for added control and movement.
In the early days, I learned that every country had its own rules, before we all got together in Atlanta and standardised them in 2006. France played with barriers at the side of the pitch (no throw-ins), while the Americans’ game was more like American football with blocking.
It’s an amazing sport and community that I’m proud to have helped build into what it is today.
Things really went to another level once the FA got involved in 2013. Up until that point, all our tournaments had been self-funded. We were representing England, but we had to raise money for travel and better chairs by ourselves.
Now, it’s more professional. We have funding and the same treatment as any other England team. We get caps, we play under the national anthem, and of course we get to wear the white kit. That official white kit. The same kit that Harry Kane and Steph Houghton pull on. It’s an honour and a responsibility I never could have imagined back when I was a teenager. It still gives me goose bumps, you know?
Now that you have some idea of just how much playing for England means to me, I can finally tell you about my wedding.
In 2012, I proposed to Jamie (the love of my life, who I met one drunken night in the old Liquid nightclub in Windsor haha) and we set a date for our wedding of July 18, 2014 — specifically avoiding the European championships that year, which were scheduled for spring time.
Then we get an announcement that the dates of the tournament are being changed. First game? You guessed it: July 18.
The wedding was already booked and paid for, so Jamie and I had the conversation and it was like, “Well that sucks, but I guess I just can’t go to the Euros….”
But I kept training with the team in the lead-up to the tournament, and as it got closer and closer, the thoughts started creeping into my head like, How can I miss this? This is everything I’ve ever dreamed of since that first trip to Japan. We’re going to play as England officially.
So, I wrote a long, awkward text to Jamie that went something like: “Babe, you know how much this sport means to me ... is there something that we can do to allow me to go play football? And, of course, this wedding means the world to us both ... it's just I really need to make this tournament.”
Long story short, it cost me one (very expensive) Mulberry handbag, but we agreed that I could do the wedding then rush off to the airport to join the rest of the team in Ireland for the tournament!
Throughout the wedding day, before and after the I do’s, I was glued to my phone checking the scores of the day’s games. (I mean, who needs memories when you've got the wedding video anyway? — sorry, Jamie!).
At one in the morning, mid-party, I slipped off into the toilets to change from my suit into my England tracksuit before racing to Stansted with my dad for the flight the FA had booked me.
I didn’t drink the whole day, but fortunately Jamie was battered by the time I left and I don’t think she even knew I was gone in the end — haha. ;)
The very next day I was playing in the Euros. Just to be a part of that first tournament, to see BOLDING 8 on the back of an official England shirt … well, seeing that was worth the price of a handbag.
We made it to the final against France, and by Sunday night I was flying back and getting ready to go to New York on my honeymoon!
I blamed myself for being disabled and putting my wife and unborn child in this position.- Jon Bolding
To be honest, I probably don’t tell Jamie enough, but I couldn’t ask for a more amazing wife. She has supported me throughout everything and helped me live my dreams. Back when I was young, even before I discovered football, I set three goals for myself.
I was going to: get married, have a house of my own and become a father.
Thanks to Jamie, I completed those goals with the last one coming with the birth of my daughter, Halle, in 2015.
It is my proudest moment. That sounds like the obvious thing to say, but you have to understand that, because of my condition, it was 50-50 whether she would inherit the same disability.
During the early weeks of the pregnancy, waiting for the results of the screening test to find out whether the baby was like me or not was the worst week of my life.
I blamed myself for being disabled and putting my wife and unborn child in this position. I’m a positive person, I like to find upside in everything, but all the feelings I had growing up of, why me? before I found football, came rushing back.
Fortunately in the end, I’m pleased to say Halle took Jamie’s genes rather than mine. We've got a very special one.
Since that first Euros under the FA in 2014, the wedding to Jamie and Halle’s birth, it’s been a whirlwind of incredible memories.
We won the Euros in 2019, beating our old rivals France on penalties in the final after coming back from 2–0 down during normal time. I’ll never forget the madness after the last penalty — my dad literally jumped the barrier and was on top of me in seconds, crying haha!
Those things stay with you.
The way people celebrate at powerchair football, it’s not your standard clapping and cheering like at Sunday league. I think because of the way everyone involved is so invested in the sport, they just lose their minds like out of their skin celebrating. It’s madness in the best way.
I want more of that and I have plans to win the World Cup and Champions League — those are the only biggies missing from my medal collection. But I also want to keep helping to grow the game, help it get maximum coverage and more TV time. (Hey, if badminton can get airtime, then why not powerchair?!)
I also love that as an older player, I can be there for the community as someone who’s seen and done it all and can even provide advice to young players and parenting tips as a disabled man.
I’ve always said I’ll keep playing as long as my dad — who’s been coming along with me since the beginning and seen me from those tough times at Wimbledon up to becoming a European champion — is able to come.
And when I’m finally retired, I want to be able to pass down all my medals to Halle, watch her grow up and, someday, marry whoever treats her best.
That wedding will be very special to me.
And this time, I promise I won't leave early.
To learn more about the opportunities to participate and play in disability football, visit englandfootball.com/footballyourway.