I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never given a solitary thought to what it would be like supporting Nottingham Forest with a disability.
My appreciation of disabled football fans was ignited on the opening day of this season, when I was introduced to a guy called Lee Evans. Lee is a 42 year old Millwall supporter, who has been reliant on a wheelchair for three decades. We were introduced to each other by our friend in common, Gary Clarke.
The first thing that struck me upon meeting Lee was the multitude of logistics that a wheelchair demands. I thought “how can this lad watch football up and down the country with his disability?” So you could imagine my amazement and admiration when he told me that he went to almost every away game between 1999 and 2008!
Immediately, I began to feel pretty small in the company of such a can do kind of guy. I stood there thinking that despite being able bodied; my commitment to my own club was minimalistic compared to Lee’s devotion to Millwall.
Being a columnist on all things Nottingham Forest, I asked Lee if he’d help me enlighten my readers on a day in the life of disabled supporter visiting the City Ground. Here’s what he had to say!
“Nottingham, like many big cities is going to have its problems with parking; but I found a space behind the Brian Clough stand on match day. Regarding parking in general, Forest was excellent in comparison to other clubs, who just don’t want to help. Millwall do try, and are improving. I didn’t have much interaction with the Stewards but the few I spoke to were very helpful.”
I wanted to know what the actual match experience was like for Lee and whether he felt like every other Lions fan in the away end. “When I came a few seasons back, it was a bit of hard work to get from the front of the away end back to the concourses. On previous visits I’ve always been down at the front of our fans, which is fine if we’ve not brought a big following, during a big game you’d get knocked flying. Also, in the past, I got wet at the front when the rain blew in. After the match, it took a while getting out of the car park, but with a sell out crowd, it’s hardly surprising. If I had to grade the City Ground based on the overall experience for a disabled away fan, I’d give it 6/10. You can park outside, you’re among your own fans and there’s always a good atmosphere.”
Lee’s references to past visits to the City Ground are due to the fact that he watched this season’s game from the comfort of the Castle Club. “My mate Boatsy arranged it all, so I chucked my Millwall mates in the away end and sat in comfort with my wife. I loved it because it was nice and warm and it had a bar too; probably not for everyone, but I liked it and the view was excellent! It seemed very well organised and I didn’t have any worries.”
The most astonishing thing I discovered about the levels of preparation required for supporters like Lee, was when he explained about the volume of equipment that he has to bring to every game. Lee has a tracheostomy and has to carry two rucksacks and a suitcase with him. “For a Disabled fan, it can be a nightmare, especially when some stewards still insist touching sterile equipment without gloves.” Charging his medical equipment is also vital once he’s reached any given stadium.
It’s a massive eye opener for me as a Forest fan of over thirty years to hear such things; it sounds like NFFC get a fair bit right, but with Lee’s testimonial, and such forward thinking new owners, we can improve the match day experience for travelling supporters with disabilities.
Despite his adoration of Millwall, Lee surprised me about his respect for the Forest of old. “I’ve always had a soft spot for Nottingham Forest, despite them nicking our quality players like Teddy Sheringham and Colin Cooper; how much would Cooper be worth today, £30M?”
Finally, I wanted to know exactly what a disabled supporter looked forward to when coming to grounds like Forest. “Twenty years ago I wanted to be in the thick of it at the front; at 42 I want a car parking space and a bar that’s twenty seconds away, for those reasons, boring new grounds like the Madejski stadium are great!”
Massive thanks to Millwall season ticket holder Lee Evans and to Gary Clarke for bringing the plight of disabled fans to my attention. I will present all my findings to the new owners of Nottingham Forest, in the hope that we can provide the best experience possible for these amazing travelling supporters.