Blind Faith: A Day With Arsenal's Visually Impaired Fans

Could you imagine going to a football match blindfolded, or singing the names of your favourite players without ever actually seeing them in action? We find out why there's so much more to a football match than merely what our eyes pick up.
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Could you imagine going to a football match blindfolded, or singing the names of your favourite players without ever actually seeing them in action? We find out why there's so much more to a football match than merely what our eyes pick up.

Allan Mabert has been going to Highbury for 30 years but has never seen a goal. Wayne Bushbridge calls himself a “Gooner” but could not pick Thierry Henry out of a crowd. I have watched Arsenal hundreds of times but never before while wearing a blindfold. Our team have just scored against Reading in the Carling Cup and although none of us in the “Visually Impaired” fans’ section are able to see the ball hit the back of the net, we’re all going mental.

Feeding off the crowd’s excitement, we leap off our seats to celebrate and before I know what has hit me, Allan is grabbing me in a euphoric bear hug. The force knocks me off balance and I am sent tumbling over the seats below me. Kindly, someone catches me and lands me back on my feet.

According to the commentary in our headsets, there is some debate as to whether José Antonio Reyes, the goalscorer, was offside or not. “Who cares?” Allan says deliriously. “It was a blinder!” It is this single thrilling moment that convinces me that you don’t need 20/20 vision to enjoy a live game. When Allan, policy director of the Guide Dogs for The Blind Association, started going to Arsenal he used to stand in the North Bank and pick up what he could just by listening to the crowd.

I remember, a couple of seasons ago, having Henry’s goal against Spurs described,” he says. “He ran from the halfway line towards us in the North Bank going past players at will. The visualisation of that goal will always be in my life.”

Now, he and the 21 other visually impaired season ticket holders get a much clearer picture thanks to the tailor-made commentary radio-transmitted to their special headsets. At present, only 60 per cent of professional clubs in England and Wales provide this service, which is why the RNIB’s £150,000 Soccer Sight campaign aims to install these systems and professionally trained commentators into every club by 2009.

Sitting up in Highbury’s TV gantry next to the likes of Martin Tyler and Alan Green are two civil servants. They are Alex Johnstone and Colin Hunt, Arsenal’s voluntary commentators, who, despite claiming to being “complete and utter amateurs”, have unlocked the game for the unsighted for more than 12 years. “Without them,” Femi Awolesi, whose optic nerves were damaged as an infant, says. “We couldn’t see a thing.”

At just 54, Allan’s eyesight is already so weak he admits that he could walk past his wife in the street without recognising her. Thanks to the commentary system, however, he can talk you through historic Arsenal moments as if he’d seen them with his own eyes. “I remember, a couple of seasons ago, having Henry’s goal against Spurs described,” he says. “He ran from the halfway line towards us in the North Bank going past players at will. The visualisation of that goal will always be in my life.”

Listening to the commentary system at Highbury does take some getting used to, though. Even when I could keep the fiddly earphones in, the pundits’ voices were often drowned out by my neighbours’ enthusiastic vocal support or broken up by the occasional head-splitting interference. Fortunately, there are other tricks to keeping up with the action. “The blind feel the game with all their senses,” Allan explains and soon I began to understand what he means. At corners, the whole VI section stands up. Not to get a better view, like the rest of the lower stand, but so they can remain shoulder to shoulder with the sighted fans. If a goal is scored, the communal surge of excitement keeps them up to date quicker then any commentator.

“I describe Rodge as a lump of commentary,” Allan says affectionately. “He really lives the game and so I tune into him: his every move and voice modulation. I pick it all up.”

Of course, the simplest way of staying with the action is to bring along a pal whose eyes you can trust. Every visually impaired fan at Arsenal is entitled to a free season ticket for themselves and another for their “escort” (at least until the move to Ashburton Grove). Allan met Rodger Salmon, a chirpy Hackney-born cabbie, three years ago when they struck up a chance conversation about Arsenal. Rodger confessed he could no longer afford to watch the games and Allan admitted that he needed someone to take him to Highbury. On those practical foundations, this seemingly odd couple have built a fantastic friendship.

“I describe Rodge as a lump of commentary,” Allan says affectionately. “He really lives the game and so I tune into him: his every move and voice modulation. I pick it all up.”

Of course, after just one game I’m far from fluent in Rodger’s body language but it’s not tricky to see what Allan means. The man is like a tightly-wound coil, springing forward at every chance Arsenal make, rearing back at every shot on our goal. All the while, his stream-of-consciousness commentary (“zonal marking . . . lose your man . . . lovely little one-two . . . different class”) adds the zest of colour to the picture in Allan’s mind.

For blind fans to go to such remarkable lengths to support their team may surprise some, but live football is about more than just the visual experience — it’s about wanting the same thing as 30,000 other people for 90 minutes. “It’s total escapism for me,” Allan says. “The feeling of togetherness I get at a game is one of the few occasions I actually forget I’m visually impaired. Then, when we leave the ground and I have to avoiding walking into a bollard, I know I’m back in the real world.”

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