‘I lost my leg on a roller coaster and now play football for Portsmouth and England. I wouldn’t change a thing’
TJ Yates chuckles, another tribute, this time inspired by Thierry Henry, remains confined to the training ground, not sufficiently developed to warrant a grand unveiling. Yet surely its time will come.
Once a richly-promising striker who earned Pompey trials, he tragically lost his left leg and almost died in a freak roller-coaster accident at the age of 15.
Nonetheless, Yates’ sporting passion drove him to represent Great Britain in wheelchair rugby for a decade, before returning to his footballing first love through Portsmouth FC Amputees.
Last week marked his England competitive debut, and sixth cap overall, as the Three Lions claimed a tournament silver in the build up to October’s Amputee Football World Cup in Istanbul.
Now aged 31, the multi-talented sportsman from Leigh Park is revelling in Bergkamp star turns and his most prolific season yet as he refuses to allow his disability to define him.
The injuries which cost him his leg were life-changing – in more ways than one.
‘To this day, people ask whether I’d change anything?’ Yates told The News.
‘If I could rewind time, I suppose I wouldn’t go on that ride that day, walk straight past it and choose to do something else. Then again, would life now be the same?
‘You can talk about ifs and buts. Potentially, I could have played football for a living, possibly at 18 I may have liked having a drink too much and given up the game altogether.
‘But here I am. I have two fantastic young sons, I competed in wheelchair basketball for Great Britain and am now representing England at football.
‘I’m playing for my country, I’m playing for my city. I’m singing the national anthem on a regular basis, something you never, ever get bored of. I’m singing it louder than ever.
‘I lost my leg in a freak accident but, right now, I’ve got everything I want in life. Everything.
‘And I wouldn’t change a thing.’
A former youth player with Havant & Waterlooville, Yates was spotted at the age of 14 by Pompey scouts while turning out for Ramsdale United and subsequently attended trials.
Despite not invited back, the Staunton Park Community School pupil retained ambitions of becoming a footballer – yet within eight months lost his leg.
In April 2006, Yates joined friends spending Good Friday at Funland Hayling Island, having been given the money by mum, Fiona.
The group decided to ride Woody’s Roller Coaster, only for tragedy to strike.
He added: ‘We each had our own cart, but my safety bar didn’t lock.
‘As it went around the track I was sliding from left to right, holding on for dear life. When it reached the end, I was getting out onto the platform, only for the ride to continue on a second lap.
‘I grabbed the side of the cart, I didn’t let go, and was dragged around the whole ride, hitting every single pole.
‘Had I let go, I could have escaped with a few minor injuries, but I was frightened. In my mind, had I released my fingers at that moment, I could die, so held on and held on until I fell.
‘I remember waking up in QA Hospital, with doctors around me, and me saying “Why are you all in my bedroom?” I didn’t have a clue where I was.
‘Apparently a paramedic saved my life at the scene by putting his hand into my leg to stop me bleeding out. Had he not done so, I wouldn’t be here now.
‘I required a blood transfusion, had snapped my femur, shattered my kneecap, it was in 1,200 pieces, my tibia and fibula were broken, and I had no skin five inches below or above my knee as I was wearing shorts.
‘The weird bit was that my leg was still attached, the ligaments and muscles keeping it there, but it was dead.
‘Doctors said I wouldn’t be able to walk without pain, any more than five steps and I’d be in agony. They advised that even three years down the line, potentially it could require amputation.
‘When they left the room, I sat there for a few minutes before turning to my mum and saying: “Can I amputate it? I’d rather just get on with it.”. I wanted it done and dusted, I had to move on with my life.
‘I was 15 at the time, I didn’t want to spend two or three years in and out of hospital feeling sorry for myself, just delaying the inevitable before dealing with it at an older age.
‘I had to get on with my life and, for my own mind, needed to get it done straight away so there was no change of heart. Two days later, they operated, cutting it six inches above the knee.
‘I look back – and the decision was the right one.’
Funland Hayling Island strongly denied responsibility to The News at the time, while no legal action was taken. Woody’s Roller Coaster was eventually removed from the park 10 years later in 2016, to be replaced by two newer rides.
It was during rehabilitation when a 16-year-old Yates spotted a poster for Southampton-based wheelchair team Hampshire Harriers – and a year later was representing Great Britain in the Junior European Championships.
Soon graduating to the senior squad, he became a fixture over 10 years, tuning out for them in Italy, Turkey, Holland, Poland, Germany and Spain.
He was also in the frame for the 2012 Paralympic Games, yet with son Drake, his first child, due to be born during the London-based tournament, he declared himself unavailable for duty.
Nonetheless, Yates soon regained his Great Britain place in a career which saw him serve five clubs, including Littlehampton West Coast Tornadoes, Milton Keynes Aces and London Titans.
‘I had some good injuries playing wheelchair basketball, it’s not for the faint-hearted!,’ said the Soberton Road-based athlete.
‘There’s been a dislocated shoulder, a cracked rib, I’ve regularly been knocked out of my wheelchair with people carrying on and running over my fingers. It can be brutal.
‘Before I joined, I went with my mum to watch a game. She was horrified. “I don’t want you playing,” she told me. Then, on my first day, I was smashed out of my chair, yet there’s a real rush when you’re hit quite hard.
‘I enjoyed it, it kept me active. I was a power forward, the big, strong one, ramming people out of the way to get to where I needed to be.
‘Then it got to the point where I was on the verge of giving up basketball, all the best teams were in London and up north, while it was starting to cost me a bit of money.
‘I was umming and ahing and, at exactly the right time, I received a Facebook message in 2015 from Ray Westbrook, who I’d met years earlier at an awards event. He was setting up a Pompey Amputee football team. You could call it fate.
‘I returned home from my first training session and put my basketball chair up for sale. I remember thinking: “This is me, I’m back where I belong”.’
Last weekend’s AMP Futbol Cup represented Yates’ maiden international tournament, yet unfortunately clashed with Pompey Amputees’ presence at the 2022 FA Disability Cup Finals at St George’s Park.
From the England team hotel in Warsaw, he followed progress via BT Sports’ YouTube channel, only for the Blues to be denied an unprecedented treble with a 1-0 defeat.
Disappointingly, the Three Lions would also be conquered in a final, the following day claiming silver after a 4-0 loss to hosts Poland.
Yates was called upon from the bench in two of England’s opening three matches, yet missed the final having damaged his left thumb following an awkward fall in an earlier fixture.
‘Football has always been my passion and England is more than a team, it’s my second family,’ added Yates, who works as head of customer services for phone and broadband at energy firm SSE in Havant.
‘We’re very close and stay in contact away from training camps. Whenever we meet up, it’s a fist pump and a cuddle, I feel comfortable around them.
‘Like a family, if there’s something on your mind, you can talk to them, you can call them. It’s the same at Pompey, we all go out together for something to eat after training.
‘I suppose we’ve gone through similar experiences, albeit at different levels, whether it’s being born with missing limbs, losing limbs through cancer or some, like me, through horrible accidents.
‘I’ve just had my best season by far at Pompey, scoring 14 goals to finish as leading scorer. It has gone absolutely wild – and now things are going well with England.
‘I’m that old-school striker. I’m quite big and strong, so give me the ball, no-one’s going to get it from me, nobody, and I’ll bring the wingers into play before getting into the box myself.
‘I love trying stuff people wouldn’t expect from somebody on crutches. There’s the Dennis Bergkamp turn, I’ve mastered it, I love that one. Flick it past them, turn and carry on running, I can go either side and the defender can’t stop me.
‘I’m also working on Thierry Henry’s goal against Manchester United in 2000 where he flicks it up and volleys it, but haven’t pulled that one off yet. It’s just for training, I’m not brave enough in an actual match!
‘In March, we had the League Cup final against Manchester City. One of their defenders fell, his crutch flying up and smashing me in the face, so I had to come off to be checked for concussion.
‘We were losing 4-3 and when the physio eventually gave me the go-ahead to return to the pitch, I told him “Watch me go and score the equaliser”.
‘With five seconds remaining, Ray (Westbrook) put in a free-kick and I headed home to level. Such a fantastic feeling, I turned to my physio and shouted “I told you!’.
‘Then Ray scored a free-kick in extra-time to win the cup for us. I never actually thought I’d play football again, I just love it.’
In terms of international ambition, the Amputee Football World Cup in Turkey is on the horizon.
It’s yet another challenge he sets about with infectious enthusiasm.
He said: ‘After returning from Poland on Monday, I went straight from Heathrow Airport to pick up my sons Drake and Oscar from Riders Infant and Junior Schools in Leigh Park.
‘I still had my England stuff on, with the silver medal in my pocket, which the kids and their friends wanted to see. Teachers were congratulating me, while parents were asking for photographs of me standing alongside their children.
‘What a fantastic life experience. Had it not been for losing my leg, I would never have had that. You’ve got to be positive with what you have.
‘You either sit there, mope and feel sorry for yourself or get on and deal with it – and I’m happy.
‘After waking up from my operation and no longer having a left leg as a 15-year-old, I joked. That’s how I dealt with it, that’s my mentality, put on a brave face and don’t look back.
‘After all, I’ve plenty of reasons to smile. I’m an international footballer.’
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
You can support our local team of expert Pompey writers by subscribing here for all the latest news from Fratton Park for 9p a day, thanks to our 30%-off transfer window deal.