Below is an article I wrote for the May 2015 edition of When Saturday Comes magazine on disabled access at football grounds.
My first away game holds memories of standing room only on a crumbling terrace. It was 1989 and things were very different back then. There were about 500 of us crammed together under a low-hanging roof with obstructive roof supports hindering any decent view as Hereford United and Wrexham played out a turgid goalless draw – apparently.
I’d spent the afternoon craning my neck, deciphering the work of graffiti artists and paddling in piss at Edgar Street. It may sound the stuff of nightmares but it has become a treasured memory from my formative years due to the camaraderie and sense of belonging that was conjured by following my team out of north Wales. It was this notion of shared identity and togetherness that led to more disappointingly brilliant visits to architecturally elderly football grounds during the early nineties. I was part of the crowd.
Fast forward seven years and I’d become a lonely and isolated figure after being diagnosed with Friedreich’s ataxia – a progressive, genetic disease of the nervous system – which eventually confined me to a wheelchair. I quickly learnt to accept the limitations placed on me by Mother Nature, but I struggled to adapt to the social limitations of a disabled-unfriendly society, which are perfectly illustrated through my experiences as a football spectator.
Away travel quickl0y became a hassle. I could no longer decide on the day of the game whether or not I fancied attending. Instead, I had to telephone the relevant club in advance of my impending ‘pain-in-the-arse’ presence to pre-book tickets. There was one occasion that I was unable to claim a space in a 20,000 capacity stadium despite the official attendance being a paltry 6,729.
When I did manage to secure a match ticket I was determined to travel with my fellow fans on the inaccessible coach, even if this meant losing my dignity by crawling onboard and struggling onto a seat. After expending all my energy with such manoeuvres I couldn’t face the prospect of repeating the process for toilet breaks. Frustratingly this meant no beer for me. To make matters worse, the majority of football grounds didn’t have disabled toilet facilities before the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, meaning that I’d often have to wait until I returned home to relieve myself. Lucky I’ve got a strong bladder.
At least I had the game to look forward to. Annoyingly though, instead of mingling with mates over 90 minutes of social interaction I’d be forced to use a makeshift wheelchair section – wi00th inadequate views from pitch level – in the depths of rival territory and accompanied by hostile stares. What do you do when Karl Connolly converts a late penalty to secure a precious point to the distress of everyone around you? I celebrated. It was worth the bloody nose…
The final whistle signalled another slap in the face. I would regularly travel hundreds of miles to watch my local team but due to my segregation away from the main body of visitors, my efforts would go without applause or recognition by travelling players. It wasn’t their fault. I was merely an invisible needle in a haystack.
My frustrations weren’t just limited to on the road. Things were just as bad at the Racecourse where wheelchair bound fans were plonked at the side of the pitch with only a rickety looking corrugated-iron structure for protection from the elements. It was hard enough to come to terms with my disability without being treated like a second-class citizen by my own club. Instead of accepting this situation, I allowed two club stewards to break all manner of fire regulations and carry me up into the main stand where I could enjoy the game with friends.
These were my experiences in the twentieth century. Surely, the picture is brighter in 2015? It would appear not. More needs to be done to include disabled people – whatever their disability – in the matchday experience. As sports writer David Conn underlined in a recent article, the vast majority of Premier League clubs have not made the required improvements in line with the Equality Act 2010. The money is there to make the necessary architectural improvements to football stadia – as shown in the new builds at Swansea, Leicester and Arsenal – but the socially responsible drive and purpose is missing.
As is often the case, football mirrors society and sporting arenas will continue to be an ugly place for those with disabilities until society at large becomes more accepting and accessible for all. Coalition welfare cuts, a shortage of accessible housing and shocking statistics on disabled hate crime mean I won’t be holding my breath for a return to the inclusion I experienced at Edgar Street…