It’s Saturday and the match is on. A fortnight’s wait of anticipation, bottled into one 90-minute game of football.
The simplest of routines and to some, a way of life. But after 234 days – and what seems like a lifetime – we are seemingly no sooner to a resolution on when supporters will be allowed back in the stands, as another lockdown beckons.
But for loyal disabled fans up and down the country, from the Premier League to non-league, the purgatory of the unknown is, well, unbearable.
Disabled football supporters are feeling the effects of not attending games more than most
Whether it be wheelchair-bound, blind, deaf, autistic, Down’s syndrome – the list goes on. For these groups, football is a welcome distraction, the only distraction, from the usual struggles of day-to-day life and has a huge impact on their well-being.
But the unfortunate truth is this: those for whom the match-day experience matters most find themselves to be the most vulnerable, within the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the past seven months, Sportsmail has talked to supporters and executives at all levels to discuss and dissect the issues at play for disabled match-going fans, how lockdown has brought communities closer together and, most pertinently, the route forward amidst a never-ending black hole in English football.
It’s April 16. The UK has been in lockdown for 24 days and the last football match with supporters was over a month ago.
Ted Morris, a 56-year-old wheelchair-user and secretary of Liverpool Disabled Supporters Association (LDSA) is struggling. Badly.
‘My daughter works in a pharmacy and every day we worry about what she could bring back,’ says Morris, who has been a regular at Anfield for over 50 years.
‘To the vast majority of our group, Liverpool are all they’ve got in their lives. There’s one lad in our group called Danny who has Down’s syndrome and he simply does not understand why he’s not going to Anfield every other week.’
Anfield was the last stadium which hosted a professional match with packed-out terraces in England. Morris was present on that March 10 evening against Atletico Madrid, which has since been described by experts as a ‘biological bomb’. The sense of regret is explicit in his voice.
Ted Morris has been going to Anfield for over 50 years and now sits in the Kenny Dalglish Stand
Crowds gathered in their numbers outside Anfield before the Atletico Madrid game in March
‘That game should never have been played. I wasn’t going to go because I was worried about coronavirus, but we were collaborating with Everton on Anfield Road for foodbank collections, so I felt a moral obligation to be there.
‘Suddenly, a drunken Atletico fan swapped his scarf with mine – I was panicking for weeks over that scarf and I cleaned it straight away.
‘The worry over COVID-19 was real but the only thing in your head was “if the government are letting Cheltenham go ahead, then it’s OK.” That’s the simple rationale everyone used I’m afraid.’
Ah yes, Cheltenham – remember the photos? 50,000 people, congregating just about as close as a crowd of people could do.
The 2020 Cheltenham Festival was heavily criticised amid tightly congested crowds of people
Now, it seems ludicrous. Back then, everything was so new and scarcely believable. But for disabled fans, thrust straight into the danger-zone with their medical conditions a danger to both themselves and those around them, adaptation and communication was key.
HOW DID DISABLED FANS COPE DURING LOCKDOWN?
- 43 per cent said the suspension of live sports had a significant impact on their mental health
- 62 per cent of those surveyed said being unable to return to watch live football this season would have a huge impact on their own personal wellbeing
- 12 per cent said coronavirus had put them off attending live sport forever
- 86 per cent of fans expected clubs to provide live streaming services if attending games was not possible
- 37 per cent wanted a guaranteed refund for cancelled fixtures
Source: Level Playing Field – Covid-19 fan survey, 570 responses, pub. June 2020
In a survey conducted in May by Level Playing Field (LPF) – the English sports charity which acts as a campaigning and advisory group for disabled spectators – 79 per cent of fans were in the government’s ‘high-risk’ category for COVID-19.
Twelve per cent went so far as to say that coronavirus had put them off attending live sport forever.
‘No two people are the same – it’s quite difficult really,’ Morris explains. ‘We [LDSA] are not councillors, we’re just normal people.
‘I don’t know if it’s worse for able-bodied supporters but we need some special circumstances to go back with social distancing… and yet we don’t like being treated differently to anybody else. It’s complicated, we haven’t got the answers.’
For the LDSA, of which there are 480 members from around the world, spring represented torment both personally and in supporting their football club.
Jurgen Klopp’s juggernaut were cruising to a first Premier League title before the crisis hit. Just two wins away. Yet even then, whilst the threat of ‘null-and-void’ was impossible to contemplate, perspective was key.
‘There’s people dying here. If you give me a choice between Liverpool winning the league or my elderly neighbour not getting coronavirus, it’s the latter option every time. Society will always come before football, we know that from yesterday…’ Morris says, with a lump in his throat, a day after the 31st anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.
‘Health is your wealth – that was 96 people and there’s 700 people dying a day here. Football is not more important than life and death and it never will be.
‘It was the only thing Shankly got wrong.’
Whilst Morris and Liverpool would eventually end that 30-year wait for a top-flight title, as Project Restart propelled the Premier League back into action come June, it was a different story further down the pyramid.
Leagues One and Two were decided by points-per-game, with only the play-offs being contested on the pitch.
For many, it was seen as the fairest out of all the unfair solutions on the table. But for the regular punter, devoid of the usual weekend theatre, there was no replacement.
Susan Wheeler, 67, has been going to matches at Crawley Town for six years. She has dysphasia, a language disorder marked by deficiency in the generation of speech.
Mike and Susan Wheeler were regulars at League Two side Crawley Town before lockdown
‘I haven’t coped very well. It’s been boring and I’m nervous about going out,’ she says in June, one day before the Premier League season resumes.
At times throughout our call, Susan struggles in getting her words out. But with her husband, Mike, by her side, she is able to describe how difficult life in isolation has been.
‘It’s pretty sad. I’ve found it more difficult as the months have gone on – it’s not knowing what is going to happen. I meet various people for walk-and-talks, and they all say it’s wearing now.’
Has it made her realise how much football means to her?
‘Yes, it’s my world,’ she says, decisively.
Further down, disabled fans are still vital to fanbases at clubs throughout the National League and beyond.
A Disability Charter was formed in 2019 to improve accessibility at non-league grounds
At the back end of last year, with the support of LPF and the Football Supporters’ Association, a Disability Charter was formed which focused predominantly on the importance of accessibility for disabled supporters at non-league grounds.
Maria Ryder, head of the FSA campaign for ‘Fans for Diversity in the National Game,’ detailed: ‘What it did for disabled supporters is raise awareness. We know that people with disabilities are more disadvantaged in normal times.
‘But now, with the effects of the pandemic, it’s really important that they know they can go out safely and be part of the football community.
‘This is not about spending £30,000 on a new ramp…. it’s about being proactive and clubs reaching out and saying “we’re here for you, we’re waiting for you.” Clubs are the absolute fabric of their communities.’
Tony Taylor, Chair of LPF, praised the ‘phenomenal work’ of clubs helping disabled supporters during lockdown
For all the economic turmoil football clubs faced over the summer months, beacons of hope sprung up across the country – and disabled supporters associations (DSAs) played a huge part in that.
Towns short of cohesion and clarity found solace in their local football club. Whether it be virtual gatherings, socially-distanced meetings or merely a simple weekly phone call, ‘high-risk’ supporters have on the whole received as much help as possible.
‘Clubs were and still are doing phenomenal work’, Tony Taylor, Chair of LPF, tells Sportsmail.
‘It took me back to the time of the 2012 Paralympics, when there was a change of attitude towards disabled people. In engaging with vulnerable supporters, clubs have gone above and beyond what was expected, in spite of getting bad press from politicians.
‘It’s been pretty awesome to see. But it’s important we keep that momentum going forward so we can continue to serve the disabled community in an effective way.’
The LDSA put on a pizza-making workshop in July for its kids and Virgil van Dijk surprised them
Morris too tells of numerous events put on by the LDSA for its members, from the lockdown glamour of pizza-making workshops with Virgil van Dijk to the importance of detailed weekly emails, imploring positivity and adherence to the rules.
They have collaborated with other Liverpool supporter groups too, such as Spirit of Shankly, charities such as the Owen McVeigh Foundation as well as Everton DSA, under the umbrella ‘Two teams: One city’.
‘It’s been so rewarding,’ Morris says now. ‘We have become more than disabled supporters associations – we have a responsibility to show leadership. We find now the adults are starting to cope but the kids are really struggling – but we’ve gone out our way to help them. We got behind Marcus Rashford’s campaign too.
The LDSA paid for every child’s meal in half term at the Dolphin Cafe in Garston, Merseyside
‘Although we have these tribal rivalries, football can bring everyone together and is so important to this country. But football is always used as a yardstick by the government to beat the public and population, and that’s why football is treated differently.’
By differently, Morris is referring to the cancelled plans at the beginning of this month for the safe return of fans inside stadiums, alongside the continued opening of pubs, cinemas and theatres.
But dissenting voices are growing – how much longer can the powers that be ignore football’s rallying cry?
KEY FINDINGS – COVID-19 IMPACT REPORT
- 15 per cent of fans said they would not return to live football until a vaccine was in place
- 47 per cent said they had concerns about returning to live matches
- 87 per cent said they would not use public transport when returning to stadiums
- 36 per cent of respondents stated their disability or long-term health condition did not put them at a high risk for Covid-19
- The most popular safety measure fans would like to see implemented is ‘Accessible hand sanitising stations in and around stadiums’, with 71 per cent of respondents affirming this
Source: CAFE Impact of Covid-19 Summary Report, 423 responses, pub. September 2020
As for the future, nobody knows. The FA Cup first round next weekend – so often the annual money-spinner for clubs up and down the pyramid – will take place without spectators.
As regions of the country descend into Tier 3 lockdown, there does seem to be ‘no light at the end of the tunnel’, as Morris gloomily predicts.
But eventually, supporters will return, in a painstakingly gradual process that will see stadiums partially opened. And disabled fans do not want to be left behind.
‘Disabled supporters will be able to return when fans in general return,’ Taylor, himself a wheelchair user, states in no uncertain terms.
‘It would be grossly wrong for football to let everybody in but not disabled fans. In our survey, we had somebody saying, “if I can’t go back to matches, it is effectively the end of my life.” It’s scary when you see that sort of comment.’
Indeed, 62 per cent of those surveyed said being unable to return to watch live sport this season would have a huge impact on their own personal wellbeing.
The concern is palpable, both among executives and fans themselves.
Following their own survey across Europe, which showed discernibly similar results in September, CAFE (Centre for Access to Football in Europe) managing director Joanna Deagle said: ‘Our research has highlighted that disabled people are concerned that they will not be included in the preparations for the return to live matches.’
Morris, who originally thought fans would be back in August, then October, and now next season, sternly agrees: ‘We’ve become prisoners. Our fans are just looking for a chink of light. Going to matches, it’s a sense of normality, it’s your life.
‘It’s not just the hour and a half match, it’s the whole day. Seven hours a week, 28 hours a month – where’s that gone? It’s quite dark at the moment.
‘But then again, if our members go to games and something goes wrong, would that responsibility fall on me? It would. They want to go at all costs, but at what cost?’
Disabled football supporters have urged to be treated in the same way as able-bodied fans
For now, amid rising coronavirus cases as we head into a winter of unpredictability, swathes of people approaching grounds across the country seem a good distance off – even if an online petition has reached nearly 200,000 signatures.
But with Halloween cancelled and Christmas not far behind, the message from disabled fans – as football’s governing bodies continue to push for the return of supporters – could not be clearer.
When the time comes, don’t forget us.