With less than a month to go until the start of the new football season, chicken balti pies, flasks of Bovril and cold Tuesday nights in the snow will all soon be back on the agenda. However, as Paul Carter discovers, many disabled supporters still face problems in watching the beautiful game.
Between the months of August and May, hundreds of thousands of football fans pack up their flasks and scarves every weekend, travelling the length and breadth of the country in order to follow their beloved teams, and among those numbers of supporters are unsurprisingly many disabled people.
However, even for non-disabled people, going to the football can sometimes be as much of a stressful experience as it can be rewarding, exhilarating and exciting.
Large numbers of people, inhospitable toilets and unpredictable weather are all factors that can make life difficult for anyone. For disabled fans, these factors can be compounded.
At the majority of league grounds, the only alternative to sitting in the stands with non-disabled supporters is to sit in a separate disabled supporters area, usually designed to accommodate wheelchair users.
Chas Banks is a committee member with Manchester United Disabled Supporters Association (MUDSA), who became disabled, and a wheelchair-user, in 1996, and says he had to find a new way to follow United.
“Before that, I didn’t even know where the disabled people sat,” he says.
He has strong views on the standard of facilities provided by some of the clubs, particularly when it comes to the viewing areas.
“There are some grounds that I refuse to go to on principle. I won’t go to Portsmouth, because I think they’re a disgrace, and I personally don’t think they should be allowed in the Premier League. There are supposed to be minimum standards, and I don’t think they should be allowed to play because their disabled facilities are so appalling. It’s a nightmare if you’re an away fan.
“Basically, you’re at the opposite end of the ground. It’s not just a different part, you’re right at the far end of the ground and you’re directly in line with the ball, at pitch level behind the goal. It’s quite dangerous.
“You’re also right in amongst their hardcore fans, it’s pretty horrendous really.”
Paddy Cronesbury is chair of Middlesbrough FC Disabled Supporters Association (MDSA).
He agrees that having non-segregated platforms is far from ideal, and says he has witnessed first hand tensions between home supporters and disabled away fans in communal viewing areas, and in some cases even hostility between disabled fans themselves.
“From a disabled point of view I think probably one of the downsides in quite a few cases, especially if you’re a visiting fan, is that out of all the 92 league clubs, I think there’s only about 34 that actually allow you to sit with your own fans, and that includes some of the big clubs as well who are ‘culprits’ if you like.
“At Liverpool for example, you’re sat behind the goal opposite the Kop End, surrounded by Liverpool fans. Your own fans are away to your right-hand side in the corner and you feel a bit detached.
“When you’re with your own fans there’s an element of camaraderie, it’s a bit more safe, you don’t feel on edge, and you don’t take any abuse! Being in a wheelchair doesn’t stop you getting abuse from away fans, it’s a level playing field in that sense.”
Aside from the physical access problems, lack of advance information to access about facilities at different clubs can be a barrier.
Nick Saunders is disability liaison officer (DLO) for Exeter City FC, who play in League Two, English football’s fourth tier. He is also chair of the club’s DSA, so has experience of both sides of the coin.
“I always found that at away games, the difficult thing was finding the information to actually enable you to go to those games – which person to talk to to get the correct ticket information, parking information, stuff which a lot of disabled people actually need to find out if they do travel away.
“Not all disabled people can just turn up at the ground and pay at the gate, you’ve got to work out how you’re going to get in, in the first place.”
However, he says that as more and more clubs appoint their own dedicated DLOs, and the numbers of supporters’ associations grow, information is becoming more readily available.
“Clubs having a DLO is a great thing, because it gives you a point of contact, and that’s the biggest issue. If you haven’t got a point of contact, it does make life a lot more difficult, because you just want to go to the game to enjoy it, you don’t want the hassle of spending weeks trying to find out who you want to speak to. DLOs can be a great help to all disabled people.”
Despite the obvious barriers that still exist, most disabled fans agree that there have been huge strides to improve facilities in recent years, and to improve disabled people’s awareness of their existence.
The National Association of Disabled Supporters (NADS) is an organisation that represents disabled supporters of all sports, and campaigns for inclusion and equal access for all to sporting stadia. It’s Level Playing Field campaign, which encourages clubs to promote their facilities for disabled people is now in its fourth year, and is backed by leading figures in the game such as former England internationals Trevor Brooking and Danny Wallace.
Chas Banks describes the facilities at Old Trafford now as “fantastic”.
“It’s just absolutely awesome, the experience as an away fan now,” he says, although he says that the quality of facilities at other grounds “varies dramatically, depending on where you go.”
He lists Aston Villa, Newcastle and West Ham as being examples of good practice, while describing difficulty in seeing the action at Norwich and Blackburn.
Paddy Cronesbury says that many more clubs are now catching on to the idea that they need to provide raised viewing areas, that enable people to see even when those in front stand up.
“There have definitely been improvements,” he says.
“There are more raised level options at some grounds whereas before it was a lifetime of sufferance where we were sat on the touchline and if you didn’t like it, well tough, that was all you were going to get.
“It’s certainly not all doom and gloom, far, far from it,” says Nick.
“At some clubs, the improvements have been immense, even in the past four years. There’s a hell of a difference, and I’m not just speaking as the DLO for Exeter City, I’m speaking generally for all disabled supporters because I get that feedback all the time through the DSA. A lot of clubs have improved drastically.”
“Nothing is perfect though,” says Paddy. “There’s always room for improvement somewhere.”