With or Without COVID by Phil Downs.

“The cries from supporters with disabilities suddenly had a much louder voice”. After suffering a life changing injury, Manchester United supporter, Phil Downs, chats to IMAGO to tell his story and fan ambition to negotiate introducing an acceptable level of facilities and opportunity for supporters with disabilities. Read his full and inspirational story here.

In the mid-70s, last century:  

I was desperate to get to see a match again following a catastrophic injury  which left me in a wheelchair paralyzed from the shoulders down. As a  Manchester United fan my ambition to get a ticket to a match was thwarted  for more than 5 years due to the exceedingly small number of available tickets  to people using wheelchairs. When the breakthrough finally came, I was  offered 3 tickets at the end of a season and then a season ticket arrived for the  next season which felt like a lifetime of Christmases bundled together!  

Although nervous on approaching Old Trafford for the first time, I was also  feeling the excitement and the excitement just grew and grew the closer I got  to the stadium. I didn’t know what to expect as I had never noticed the  facilities for supporters with disabilities when I was fully able bodied, like so  many people, I felt that disabled supporters must be watching from  somewhere but never thought anything more about it. Seeing the crowds from  a different level was an experience I wasn’t ready for; staring at peoples  ‘backsides’ all the way down Warwick Rd (as it was then) wasn’t the best view  but the stadium came into view and there it was!

Being inside the stadium also involved a learning curve as I was led by a  steward through a rabbit warren of corridors. All the nerves disappeared only  to be overtaken by bewilderment as I realized the end of the journey was at  the top of the players tunnel with the players dressing rooms to my left. I could  hear the bustle of noise from behind the dressing room doors which soon  opened with both teams starting to make their way towards the tunnel. It was  an incredible experience to be within touching distance of my heroes! 

IMAGO / PA Images
Photo: IMAGO / PA Images
IMAGO / Colorsport
Photo: IMAGO / Colorsport

Leap forward into the 21st century:  

Manchester United had had 4 separate stadium expansions and with that the  number of wheelchair spaces grew, likewise the seating for visually impaired  supporters. I started the Manchester United Disabled Supporters Association  

(MUDSA) inaugurated in 1989, one of the first in Europe, if not the first. I then  moved onto become one of the founders of the National Association of  Disabled Supporters (NADS) which later had a name change to ‘Level Playing  Field’. The cries from supporters with disabilities suddenly had a much louder  voice with the number of individual club associations growing annually. The  National Association carried the debate to the higher echelons which, after  years of campaigning, produced the Accessible Stadia Guide which amounted  to a minimum standard for facilities for supporters with disabilities.  

IMAGO / PA Images
Photo: IMAGO / PA Images

Implementing the minimum standards was a battle! In general, only new stadia benefitted from increasing numbers and better views but it was much more difficult to force the minimum standards to spread amongst the older and more ‘historical’ stadiums. Only time would tell whether the improved facilities would see the light of day however a massive shake-up in the English Premier League provided a promise that all clubs would reach the required standards by 2017. My hope became reality at last! 

IMAGO / CTK Photo
Photo: IMAGO / CTK Photo
IMAGO / CTK Photo
Photo: IMAGO / CTK Photo

It could be said that we have now reached the ‘COVID era’. Fans no longer know what to expect once this period of matches played behind closed doors is over and fans are allowed back into stadiums. No doubt the reintroduction of fans to matches will be cautious and a slow process, stringent procedures will be in place but the ideal of ‘universal design’ will continue to be observed with more and more fans with disabilities enjoying the ‘beautiful game’. At this point my focus has largely moved to thinking about the facilities for disabled people in other countries, in this case, Spain. 

‘Estadio Accesible’ is the ‘new kid on the block’ and eager to make an impression on clubs, governing bodies and the Gobierno de España in order to negotiate introducing an acceptable level of facilities for supporters with disabilities living in Spain. So many currently find themselves devoid of any options and negligible levels of understanding and appreciation of the ‘lonely’ fans with disabilities who will be ‘isolated’ from the game long after COVID is over! When everyone else is restriction-free and back cheering their team as the ‘12th man’ just as they were in 2019, fans with disabilities will still be watching the match on TV! 

With or Without COVID by Phil Downs.
Photo: John Peters, MU Official Photographer

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