On August 18, 2012, Charlton Athletic visit St Andrews in the Championship. Personally speaking the fixture is a trip down memory lane.
You see Birmingham City v Charlton Athletic was the first game I saw in the flesh. The date was September 15 1979 and the Blues won 1-0. Immediately I was hooked on the buzz of the crowds and the smell of the burgers. Funny how certain dates stick in your mind.
Unlike the vast majority of the 17,000 plus crowd I didn't watch the actions from the terraces, as a fan with a physical disability I was directed to a small corner of the ground. In those days disabled fans were crammed in small spaces. If you were lucky you wouldn't be placed behind those distinctive sky blue cars which were designed for drivers with disabilities.
I was born with cerebral palsy, a condition which effects my hand and leg co-ordination, but this wasn't ever going to stop me watching the boys in blue. During the next decade my wheelchair was housed under the main scoreboard. We were upgraded in the 1990s, when the club built an indoor section for us. The curious building reassembled a greenhouse but was greatly appreciated in the depths of winter.
A couple of years we were on our travels again. The stadium was being redeveloped in the aftermath of the Taylor Report. The vast bank of terracing was replaced by an all-seater stand. Wheelchair spectators were allocated several sections within the new St Andrews.
The new enclosures were a vast improvements on their predecessor, but one age old problem remained. Every time the Blues attacked, fans would automatically stand up and block our view. You can't blame the fans, they were just getting caught up in the game, but it is very frustrating. The move to grander surroundings came at a price, for the first time disabled fans had to pay to watch Birmingham City. Personally speaking I was able to afford the admission prices, but I'm aware a lot of my peers are not as fortunate. In these tough economic times many fans are being priced out.
In the mid 1990s I became a student at Coventry University. Within weeks I was attending games at Highfield Road. I really liked their quint stadium and the facilities were excellent. I normally watched the game from the Mitchells and Butlers stand. The M & B managed to partially avoid the standing issue by positioning us above the seated area. Alternatively there was the Clock Stand. This was a throwback to the early Eighties as you viewed the action from a remote corner.
After a period of voluntary work I decided to resume my education. This time I headed for Staffordshire University in Stoke-on-Trent. The Potteries is a fantastic area for football. I attended games at Stoke City and Port Vale. Because my halls of residence was nearer the Britannia Stadium, I tended to see more of the Potters. As you would expect from a stadium built in the 1990s the facilities were excellent. The club's own disabled supporters club made me feel very welcome. As half time approached one lad would ask if we would like a cup of tea. Having collected the money, the helpful Samaritan would return with a tray of rosy lee. Birmingham City offer a similar service on match days.
I loved my visits to the Brit. At first I used taxis to make the two-mile journey, but I got fed up of having to pay £10 each way, so I managed to find my own way to the ground. Aside from saving money, those trips gave me a sense of independence. Any disabled person will tell you how they value their independence. It increases your self-confidence and broadens your horizons. To complete my match day experience I found a chip shop on the way home. Footy and chippy tea on a Saturday, you can't beat British tradition!
Vale Park was another great experience. It was a different world from the Britannia or St Andrews. The ground has real character and everyone was so friendly. I remember a dear old lady who worked for the St John ambulance. Every time I went she would ask if I would like another blanket to keep me warm.
I still watch games at Birmingham, Stoke and Coventry's Rioch Arena. I like the Arena but it lacks the character of Highfield Road. It is the same story in the Potteries. A lot of Stoke fans still prefer the old Victoria Ground.
One unfortunate trend has developed in the past few years though. Some fraudsters are taking advantage of discounted ticket prices offered to disabled supporters. The well meaning scheme is open to abuse. In some cases abled-bodied fans have hired wheelchairs to gain reduced admission. As a consequence I have to provide legal proof of my disability at the start of the season.
But after 23 years I still love going to the match.
Calling all disabled fans: We would love to hear of your experiences of going to games. What are your club's facilities for you like? Where is the best place you have watched football? Where is the worst? Has the situation got better over the years? Is there anything you would like to see the clubs to do to help you? Whatever your views, we'd love to hear from you.