by Andy Robinson

Nowadays we all seem to know much more about the modern game and our particular teams than just the search for a new striker or our team’s battle to avoid relegation. We know about the work our clubs do in the community, we know about the growth of female attendance, the coaching of the youngsters. One area that never seems to get any attention however is the experiences of the supporters with disabilities. According to the FA Website over 30,000 registered disabled football supporters attend matches on a regular basis. I wanted to know more about all this so I went off searching the internet and my club’s website to see if I could learn more.

Mark Barber is the Secretary of the Manchester City Disabled Supporters Association and lived quite close by and he agreed to meet up for a pint and a chat. The Manchester City DSA was founded in 1999 and has over a hundred members and in many ways it’s run like a regular supporters club. Its major differences from other supporters clubs are twofold. It doesn’t provide a service for away travel like other supporters groups in that it’s logistically difficult to arrange – although the group pulled it off spectacularly for City’s recent trips to Wembley – and it has the Etihad Stadium as its base for meetings as opposed to the back room of a pub.

Apparently supporters clubs are entitled to a visit from a City player every two years but having the stadium as HQ and Mark’s extraordinary talent for promoting the DSA along with the work of Hayley Crook the Disability Liaison Officer at the club, it means a top drawer speaker at each meeting which are held every two months and members travel from as far as North Wales. The index on Mark’s phone is an absolute who’s who of all things City and last week’s guest was raconteur Fred Eyre who as expected went on and on and left a very limited time for a Question and Answer session afterwards although everyone had a great time.

Mark told me the story of Argentinian international Pablo Zabaleta’s night with the group. As the fans began to form a queue to meet the player Zabaleta sent them back to the tables and said to Mark “Imagine if a journo had got a picture of a queue of disabled people waiting to meet a City Player? I’m going to them” – this now is the established routine at the meetings. Mark also produces a monthly newsletter and this can contain anything from a review of a Rodney Marsh book signing to promoting a member’s particular charity’s fund raising efforts. One great story concerned a family of United fans who lost a handbag with all their cash in and were given money by City supporters on the day of the FA Cup semi Final last year.

Mark had more than one horror story of facilities at other grounds.

What then of City’s relationship with the group? Mark works closely with Hayley Crook the clubs Disability Liaison Officer. Issues can be wide and varied from parking to pricing and nothing seems to be too much trouble for the club. One female member who suddenly found it a lot more difficult to attend games as her condition got worse and felt the cold more was provided with a special heated seat at no extra cost and when the club opened the “City square” development at a preview launch which members of the DSA were invited to it was noticed that special rails and holders for food and drink were in the food outlets but had been omitted in the bars. They were up before the official opening. The club also put on free transport from the car parks.

As I come into the stadium from the opposite side I haven’t actually seen it in action but from Mark’s description it’s like a big elongated golf buggy apparently and is yet another facility provided by the club. Mark also put me in touch with Paul Raffo. Paul and his team provide commentary for the blind and visually impaired at the stadium on match day.

On Wednesday before the Europa tie with Porto courtesy of Mark and Hayley I was invited to the press and commentary box to have a look round. Paul and the other members of his team use a loop system which is in the process of being extended and works with a couple of the guys commentating and another couple ready to shoot off to all parts of the stadium if any technical difficulties arise. Opposing clubs are always made aware of the service and they have a small, dedicated band of listeners and are anxious for more. They relished the opportunity to speak with me to promote what they do and get it out there to a wider audience.  The bottom line is the relationship between the club and the DSA is so strong that the DSA feel no need to affiliate to the national DSA.

At Wednesday’s match I had the opportunity to view the Stadium’s facilities at first hand as my wife and I were allowed into the South stand courtesy of the club to meet up with Mark prior to the game. When the stadium (sorry United fans – “Council House”) passed over from being the “Commonwealth” site and the Council to the club, the views of the DSA and others were actively sought out. The specific seating areas were spread far and wide to all sections and corners of the stadium in the interests of integration and it works amazingly well. I don’t care where I sit as long as I get a ticket but Mark does have a great view – we got the wife to stand up in the row in front and the view still isn’t impeded. It looked impossible and it really felt like it was a trick using mirrors! Unfortunately, this isn’t the case at other clubs in the North West as at our meeting a week earlier Mark had more than one horror story of facilities at other grounds. I will not “name and shame” these clubs but Everton wasn’t mentioned, surprising really seeing as able bodied supporters don’t get a decent view at Goodison.

Yes, they have a voice, but it’s time we started to shout with them.

One of the first things I came across in my research which I told Mark about was the price of a parking ticket at Wembley. I felt £17.50 was excessive and that I was e-mailing the FA to complain; Mark didn’t really reply. The last thing he said as I left him though an hour and a half late was that £35 was the regular price for parking. Nice one Mark, Comedy is all about timing!

Also, in our general “two middle aged blokes talking football” chat Mark finally confirmed what I had always thought was an old wives tale, the stewards at Man City are mostly United supporters.

Doing this article has took me much longer than I expected as every piece of information I came across I wanted to find out more about it and over the last three weeks or so I have mithered the club and City historian Gary James over bits and pieces the further into it I went. I haven’t been able to get in the story about Ron McCormick, now in his Eighties, who pioneered commentary for the blind at both Manchester Clubs (and cricket too) from the fifties right up until the birth of MUTV; I should have got more details from the editor of the “Cutter” about his mate – an Aston Villa fan who gets about the country and never misses a Villa game; and I never hung around the stadium after the match on Wednesday to see how difficult it could be getting out of a football stadium in a wheelchair or if your visually impaired or if, like my wife, you need a walking stick to aid your movement sometimes.

There must be lots more to tell and I feel I have only skimmed the surface of this but why don’t you go and have a look at what your club does; even more importantly though, amongst the “Daisy Cutter’s” readership is half the journalists off “The Sunday Supplement” – you go and do your bit now. Thirty thousand fans is a lot of football supporters and yes, they have a voice, but it’s time we started to shout with them.

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