Most disabled football fans, if and when they go to watch their team away from their home ground, would prefer to sit with their own supporters. But, in most grounds around the Premier League, this is not the case.
A recent report into disabled access in the top-flight suggests that only three of the stadia in the 2013/14 season had the number of spaces required by the Premier League guidelines. The number is determined by a formula related to ground capacity.
West Ham try their very best to make away fans welcome at Upton Park. Their stewards are very friendly, which is more than could be said for many other grounds I have visited. But, because of the stadium design, the travelling support is seated together, but remote from their own and the home fans, on a balcony on the fourth floor. However, when the Club moves to the Olympic Stadium in two years time this looks set to change.
At this week’s Supporters’ Advisory Board meeting disabled fans were assured that the disabled facilities at the new stadium will be second to none. However, it is important that the club receive the credit that will hopefully come its way. A disabled West Ham supporter at that meeting commented that Reading continually win awards for their facilities at the Madejski Stadium yet, as most disabled fans will tell you, it is a terrible match day experience there. The stewarding is unhelpful and officious and wheelchair fans’ line of sight is often restricted by standing supporters.
My experience of supporting the Hammers away from home has been very mixed and is frequently dependent more on the club’s attitude rather than the straight published statistics.
For example, at Southampton, who were top of the league table published in the report, the away supporters are situated behind one of the goals at pitch level, so can only fully see one half of the pitch clearly. They also often have their view restricted by the media, stewards and police. It is also open to the elements if the weather conditions are bad, as I have discovered to my cost in our last two visits there.
At the other end of the spectrum, Portsmouth was a small, old fashioned stadium and away fans are seated amongst the hard-core home support but the atmosphere was always electric and disabled fans are made to feel very welcome.
The same can be said about Manchester United, who finished towards the bottom of the published table. The stewards still make the away disabled supporters feel wanted and although they are again located amongst the home supporters, one bonus is that the tickets are free for both the fans and their carers!
This is also the case at Chelsea, but the viewing position is nothing short of appalling.
Newcastle United is a ground where you are in amongst your own fans and the facilities are excellent but is not good if the carer accompanying you suffers with acrophobia and for me, watching at St James’s Park, is rather like watching ants play football.
One ground which has made a real impression on me is Villa Park. The view is great and the stewards are really helpful but there are no disabled seats in the away end. This can be a problem when the opposing team wins, as West Ham did there last season. Sitting in the home section, you can be on the wrong end of threats and abuse thrown in your direction as an away fan.
There are some grounds I have vowed never to visit again. One of these is Fulham. Yes, you are with your own fans but the wheelchair fans are situated on a ramp in front of these fans which restricts their view. It is one thing to take abuse from the home fans but not from your own!
So, the statistics don’t tell the whole story, as the fans will tell you it is more down to personal experience, especially when you are a disabled supporter going to an away ground. So West Ham has the opportunity to become the premier club when it comes to providing for all disabled fans.
The new facilities, together with the excellent team managed by Disability Coordinator, Julie Pidgeon, can put the Hammers top of any published table.