Arsenal

When Saturday Comes – Restricted access

I wrote the following article for When Saturday Comes magazine, regarding disabled access to football grounds.  They have used a picture of Wrexham fans enjoying the view from the wheelchair platform at the Racecourse, which just so happens to feature the fantastically gorgeous Nathan Lee Davies.

This is the original article that I wrote.  It has been edited a little in When Saturday Comes, but here it is reprinted in all its glory.  Enjoy.

Restricted access

The Culture, Media and Sport Committee [CMSC] published a report on Access to Sports Stadia in January, which highlighted substandard facilities and archaic attitudes towards disabled football supporters, especially amongst clubs plying their trade in the glitz and glamour of the Premier League.

In 2015, the league promised to improve the matchday experience for disabled fans, stating that clubs would comply with official guidance – set out in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the  – by August 2017. With this self-imposed deadline fast approaching, the CMSC survey suggested that several top-flight clubs were unlikely to meet even basic standards before the new season starts. It seems as if profit and greed has been frequently favoured by club owners over any sense of social responsibility.

This is particularly hard to stomach when you consider that the estimated costs facing the entire Premier League to bring their stadia to standard are as little as £7.2 million. No wonder fans are disgruntled when their clubs are currently in the first of a three-year television deal worth £10.4 billion.

Committee chairman Damian Collins MP said: “Sports fans with disabilities are not asking for a large number of expensive changes, only to have their needs taken into account in the way sports stadia are designed and operated.”

There can be no doubt that the majority of our elite clubs are ignoring the needs of a section of their fanbase. We only need to consider the Premier League Handbook of 2016-17 for evidence of this. This is a hefty 655-page document that includes immense detail regarding stadium requirements for accommodating TV companies, yet includes only 11 words on disabled access. This is a depressing reminder of the modern game’s priorities.

Of course, the Premier League is defensive. A statement argued that clubs are showing commitment over, what it deemed to be, an ambitious timescale.  This is hard to swallow when you consider the inclusive work being done further down the pyramid. The CMSC report regards Championship club Derby County and non-league sides Tranmere Rovers, Wrexham and Egham Town as “exemplars of best practice”. My club, Wrexham, may have played some of the worst football ever seen at the Racecourse during the 2016/17 season, but I have never been prouder to support our truly inclusive, community-owned club.

Not only does the oldest international football stadium in the world now boast an accessible viewing platform for non-ambulant supporters, but we also have plans for two more platforms. In addition, we have purchased audio descriptive commentary equipment for fans with visual impairments and have recently become a dementia friendly football club.  This is good going for a club owned and run by its fans and shows that it is possible to open a stadium to everyone.

A Premier League report – released on Transfer Deadline Day in the hope that no one would notice – revealed that 13 of its 20 clubs’ grounds do not incorporate the minimum number of wheelchair spaces recommended in the Accessible Stadia Guide (ASG) and that nine of the clubs will not make the necessary improvements in time for the league’s August deadline.

Thankfully, the threat of legal action by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) seems to have done the trick and shaken many clubs from an inactive slumber. David Isaac, EHRC chair, issued an uncompromising statement: “The time for excuses is over. Clubs need to urgently demonstrate to us what they are doing to ensure they are compliant with the law and how they are making it easier for disabled fans to attend matches. If they don’t, they will face legal action.”

Improvement schemes have subsequently been hurriedly announced by clubs that currently fall short of the minimum standards. Only four of these clubs – Liverpool, Stoke, Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion – hope to meet these standards by the August deadline.

Positive plans are in the pipeline at Manchester United, Everton, Arsenal and Leicester City, but these proposed works will not be ready within the tight timeframe.  Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea both pledge that their newly built grounds will be fully compliant with the ASG when opened.  Middlesbrough believe that the Riverside Stadium already complies with the regulations while the other two promoted teams from 2015/16, Hull City and Burnley, have been given a further year to make the necessary improvements.

Progress is being made and this should be welcomed. However, it is hard not to be cynical and question why such improvements have taken so long.  It is all well and good for football grounds to be hospitable to disabled patrons, but the change that really needs to happen is attitudinal so that no one feels excluded from watching their football team ever again.

Match of my Life

According to Wikipedia, Tanka (短歌, “short poem”?) is a genre of classical Japanese poetry and one of the major genres of Japanese literature.  Below you can read the sixth of my 2017 poems.

Twenty five years ago

A shock at the Racecourse

Saw boys become men

As the Gunners were shot down

Our fans sang in the Valleys

The poem above was written when I returned from the event described below:

On Friday, 6 January 2017, we will celebrate arguably the biggest giant-killing in FA Cup history.

It will be 25 years since that rocket from Mickey Thomas started a comeback against the Football League champions, that Steve Watkin would finish with Wrexham’s second and ultimately winning goal.

We would like to invite fans to join some of the team that were involved that day, to reminisce about what it was like to be involved, before, during and in the aftermath of a great day in our club’s history.

We will have highlights of the game to watch, along with a two-course meal.

This will be followed by a Q&A session and you will have chance to ask any questions you have.

As well as collecting signatures and pictures with our heroes from that everlasting day.

There will be some fantastic Wrexham v Arsenal prizes available to win in our raffle and you will also be able to purchase the commemorative match DVD, which you can get autographed.

So please come and join us for this historic night.

Memory Match – 14-01-33

Throughout the 2016/17 football season I will be contributing to the Wrexham AFC matchday programme. I will be penning a feature called Memory Match, a look back at classic Wrexham games from the past that I will share in this blog over the coming months.

14-01-33

Wrexham v Southport

League Division Three (Northern Section)

Racecourse Ground

Result: 6-0

Wrexham: Adams, Jones, Brown, Bulling, McMahon, Lawrence, Hughes, Frewin, Bamford, Lewis, Waller

Goalscorers: Lewis (2), Bamford, Frewin, Bulling, Waller

Southport: Middleton, Robinson, Birkett, Taylor, Wyness, Lydon, Sellars, Bell, Appleby, Williams, Turner

Attendance: 5,915

According to the match report in the North Wales Guardian, Wrexham did not need to over-exert themselves in this contest, as Southport never really showed the form that was expected of them.  The visitors were accused of being “sadly disjointed” and the reporter wonders aloud what had caused this slump in a team that threatened at the top of the league earlier in the season.

Meanwhile, the Blues were fresh from hammering Hartlepools United 8-1 at the Cae Ras and were obviously out to prove this was not a mere flash in the pan. Apparently, they tore Southport apart by “playing spirited football and bewildering them with dashing attacks and swift defensive measures.”

Wrexham were in electric form and unleashed wave after wave of attack on goalkeeper Matt Middleton. During 1931/32, the Southport custodian frustrated our forwards with a fine display in a 2-0 defeat at Haig Avenue in Ernest Blackburn’s first match in charge, but he was unsupported on this occasion and powerless against the awesome force of Tommy Bamford and company.

Wrexham had the better of the opening exchanges and it quickly became clear that this would be an afternoon of one-way traffic with Southport having to employ the offside trap to stave off danger.  However, it did not take long for Tommy Lewis to weave his way through static defenders to score the opener on 23 minutes.  A minute later Bamford netted with a neat flick from Harry Waller’s centre and a whirlwind period was complete when George Frewin notched a third with his head from a Jack Hughes cross.

It was now time for toothless Southport to have a go. They pressed forward only to find Alf Jones and Jack Brown were equal to all calls made upon them.  At least the Sandgrounders were trying to make a game of it, even though Hughes hit the woodwork with an excellent drive before Lewis completed an emphatic opening period by heading the fourth.

Southport rarely crossed the half-way line in the second half and the Blues extended their lead through Jim Bulling – who converted a Hughes corner after Ted Robinson had cleared off the line – and a simple tap-in from Waller.

***

Writing in a Supporters’ Club News column, “J.H.W” notes that the first three games in 1933 had yielded six points, with 16 goals for and only two against. Our latter day statistician also noted that, at the time, we had scored more goals at home than any other team in the English Leagues, and only Arsenal had a greater aggregate of goals, home and away, than Wrexham.

***

The 1932/33 season was to be Wrexham’s best-ever in the Third Division North when they finished runners-up to Hull City, only two points adrift of the Humberside club. So close, yet so far…

During the season, Wrexham’s home record was remarkable: they won 18 matches, drew two and lost only one, to Chester. The home wins consisted of some high-scoring victories. The 106 League goals scored that season is still a record.

***

Alas, more frustration and heartache laid in store in the cup competitions.

In the FA Cup, Wrexham beat non-League Spennymoor United at home (3-0) before losing a second round replay at the Racecourse to Brighton & Hove Albion (2-3).

The Blues reached the Welsh Cup final yet again after beating Oswestry (4-1 after replay), Bangor (2-1) and Southport (3-1 after replay). In the final they met their old rivals Chester at Sealand Road in front of a 15,000 crowd who were to see the Cestrians win 2-0, thereby lifting the Welsh Cup for the second time in their laughably sparse history.

My Racecourse – Mark Thompson

Nathan Lee Davies is a key member of the Wrexham Disabled Supporters Association, who is right behind our My Racecourse campaign. Despite a debilitating condition he does all he can to contribute to Wrexham AFC’s success. He has agreed to pen for us a series of short stories over the summer detailing what the Racecourse means to fans and former players alike. As Euro 2016 approaches, Nathan talks to matchday programme contributor Mark Thompson about international football at the Racecourse, quiz nights with former managers and Christmas carols with television soap stars.

12/05/73

Wales v Scotland

Home International Tournament

Racecourse Ground

Result: 0-2

Wales: Sprake, Rodrigues, Thomas, Hockey, England, Roberts, James, Mahoney, Toshack, Yorath (Davies 69), Evans (O’Sullivan 78)

Scotland: McCloy, McGrain, Donachie, Graham, Holton, Johnstone, Dalglish (Macari 84), Stanton, Parlane (Stein 80), Hay, Morgan

Goalscorer: Graham (60, 70)

Attendance: 18,682

With Wales about to play in their first major tournament since 1958 – or more accurately 1976 – I’ve been in a reflective international mood. I’d like to focus on my first international match at the Racecourse back in 1973 when Wales played Scotland in the Home International Tournament.

It was Wales’ first game since a 2-0 win over Poland at Ninian Park, which got the World Cup ’74 qualifying campaign off to a cracking start.  At school – Rhosddu Juniors – lots of my classmates were talking about a ‘new era’ having started for Wales. This was the first time I’d heard that phrase, but as a long-suffering Welshman it was certainly not the last.

The day of the match was overcast and a bit chilly while I was charged 10p to gain access to the Kop through the Boys turnstile.  My pal Neil Roberts and I were amongst the first in the ground.  After an abortive attempt to climb a floodlight pylon, we pottered down towards the Tech End in search of some pre-match entertainment.  We lingered on the terrace that became known as the Yale Paddock, but in those days it was just the terracing in front of the New Stand.  Once at the Tech End we sat on the wall behind the goal with our legs tucked in behind the advertising hoardings and watched the terraces filling up with Scotsmen behind us.  They all seemed to have those yellow flags with a red lion on them – AKA the Royal Standard of Scotland – not the traditional Saltire.  I remember us shouting “Get a dragon on them” with ridiculous bravado.

It was goalless at half-time. Unlike the football, the half-time entertainment was terrific. It comprised of a display by police dogs catching criminals. This got us warmed up for the second half, but our enthusiasm and excitement were soon extinguished…

As we were right next to the goal we had an excellent view of Wales goalkeeper Gary Sprake going down in instalments as Arsenal’s George Graham side-footed past him to put Scotland 0-1 up.  Ten minutes later, Graham scored his second goal as Scotland won 0-2.  After these goals I spent the rest of the game eating my packet of Spangles.

At the final whistle we ran on the pitch and I managed to secure an autograph from Rod Thomas of Swindon. Oh the glamour.

The following Tuesday, Wales lost 0-3 to England at Wembley. Wales’ new era looked a lot like the old one.

***

‘My Racecourse’ memories don’t have to be about matches attended. I vividly recall football quizzes from early/mid 1980s in the old Wrexham AFC Social Club. They were also held in the upstairs bar at the Centenary Club.

Usually I was on a team with former Chief Executive Dave Roberts, which was a very luck break as he has a thorough knowledge of football trivia.  Quizmaster Dave Davies also held quizzes where the competitors entered as individuals.  In one of them, I finished with the same score as manager Bobby Roberts. It was strangely satisfying to know exactly as much about football as the Boss.  I bumped into Bobby recently in Leicester and he told me that the Wrexham job was the most difficult of his career.

***

Of course, ‘My Racecourse’ memories don’t have to be about football. For example, I recall a Christmas carol concert in 1976 that featured Coronation Street actor Peter Adamson – AKA Len Fairclough – as the star guest.

Earlier that same year, the Racecourse held a ‘Festival of Entertainment’, culminating in people riding round the pitch on horseback dressed as characters from Planet of the Apes.  Trust me, it happened. I was there and not on drugs. Honest.

***

Over the summer months, Nathan Lee Davies hopes to compile a series of articles about our treasured Racecourse memories. We hope that this will promote the My Racecourse brand by showing how much this venue means to so many people and illustrate that it can be used by all of the community to create more memories in the future.

Memory Match – 11-12-99

Throughout the 2015/16 football season I contributed to the Wrexham AFC matchday programme. I penned a feature called Memory Match, a look back at classic Wrexham games from the past. I hope to continue writing this feature next season.

11-12-99

Wrexham v Middlesbrough

FA Cup Third Round

Racecourse Ground

Result: 2-1

Wrexham: Dearden, McGregor, Hardy, Ferguson, S. Roberts (Ridler), Carey, Williams, Gibson (Owen), Faulconbridge (Connolly), N. Roberts, Russell

Goalscorers: Gibson 50, Ferguson 68

Middlesbrough: Schwarzer, Stamp, Ziege, Feste, Vickers, Pallister (Gavin), Mustoe, Gascoigne, Deane, Ricard, Juninho

Goalscorer: Deane 42

Attendance: 11,755

The 1990’s saw some splendid FA Cup performances by Brian Flynn’s men. Arsenal, Ipswich Town and West Ham United were all put to the sword.

We progressed to the third round of the 1999/2000 competition despite being held to a 1-1 draw by Kettering Town in the first round at the Racecourse. First half goals by Steve Roberts and Danny Williams saw us through the replay at Rockingham Road to set-up a second round home tie against Rochdale. Progress to the third round was booked with a 2-1 victory that was only sealed by a Craig Faulconbridge strike on 88 minutes.

Our prize was a plum daw against a top-flight Middlesbrough side that was managed by Bryan Robson and featured such illustrious names as Paul Gascoigne, Christian Ziege and Juninho. Hopes of progression to the fourth round seemed outlandish, particularly given our woeful League form – since beating Oxford United on September 18 we had remained without a win for 12 matches, including hammerings at Gillingham (5-1) and Burnley (5-0)..

Brian Deane put Boro ahead three minutes before half-time with a controversial goal. Robbie Mustoe played a cutting pass to Hamilton Ricard who appeared to bring the ball under control using his arm. An untidy scramble then followed as the Reds attempted to clear the danger. Alas, the ball broke to Deane who powered home the opener from 10 yards.

However, Wrexham did not panic. We had created one or two opportunities in the first half and came out fighting for the second period in the hope that our gutsy determination would exploit a crisis of confidence in a Middlesbrough team that had gone four games without a win in the Premier League, including a 5-1 massacre at Arsenal.

Five minutes after the restart the scores were level. Darren Ferguson’s defence-splitting delivery allowed Robin Gibson to control and lash a low, left-footed drive past the despairing dive of Mark Schwarzer.

The Premier League side could have retaken the lead but Ziege’s corner was hacked off the line by Brian Carey and Kevin Dearden saved with his legs from Deane.

Moments later the ground erupted as the impressive Ferguson dribbled along the edge of the area, beating two defenders, before crashing an unstoppable drive past the stranded Schwarzer.

His father, Sir Alex Ferguson, was watching from the stands because his Manchester United team had no game following their controversial decision to sit out the FA Cup that season.

Previously under-fire manager Brian Flynn said afterwards: “That was a memorable day again, absolutely fantastic. From start to finish it was an enthralling cup tie.

“I think we deserved to win. I mean, the quality of our finishing was of the highest standard. Darren Ferguson’s ball through for Gibbo and the way he finished it and obviously Darren’s solo goal. It does take something exceptional and unexpected to win a cup-tie like that.”

He added: “It was certainly Darren’s best game for us, but all eleven of them played a part.

“In the starting line-up we had five players who have actually come through our youth policy, that’s virtually half the team. It’s a great experience for them to play against world-class players and to compete against them and obviously do well.”

***

Wrexham’s reward after taking such a scalp was a fourth round home tie against Cambridge United. Predictably, we lost this match 1-2 and bowed out of the FA Cup. In fact, we didn’t win another FA Cup match until November 2004 when we thumped Hayes 0-4.

 

When Saturday Comes – Equal access

Below is an article I wrote for the May 2015 edition of When Saturday Comes magazine on disabled access at football grounds.

EQUAL ACCESS

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…