Going to a football match when you have the eyesight of a mole is a rather disheartening affair.
You try your best to get caught up in the excitement of the game but, unless the play takes place entirely on the touchline in front of where you are standing, it’s impossible to keep track of what’s happening.
It’s the football equivalent of a Kindle – ensuring dodgy eyesight doesn’t prevent anyone from being able to do what other people take for granted
I gave up on going to watch Crawley Town when it became depressingly apparent I was forking out to listen to other people scream, shout and question the parentage of the referee - and only knew a goal had been scored when they all started cheering (Or crying. The giddy heights of the Football League were still an unreachable dream at that point and a win was a rare treat).
For years, my association with the Reds was reduced to asking others how the games had gone or - later - watching the scant few seconds of footage The Football League Show offered very, very late on Saturday nights. Hardly thrilling.
But now Crawley Town has come up with a solution - free audio descriptive commentary for home and away fans.
When Barbara Robinson, who volunteers at the Checkatrade.com Stadium as a supporter liaison officer, told me about the new service I was torn between excitement and doubt.
I had tried listening to radio commentary before and found myself becoming annoyed by commentators who liked to bombard the listener with their encyclopaedic knowledge of football rather than actually concentrating on describing the game.
In addition, my sight had taken something of a nosedive since I last watched the Reds, so would I leave the stadium disappointed and in need of chocolate to lift my mood?
As you’ve probably guessed, the answer was no...
Even though Crawley lost to AFC Wimbledon, the audio description brought the match to life and left my non football loving husband facing an evening of enthusiastic raving about how Matt Harrold was amazing and the waywardness of some of Luke Rooney’s shots (Shake it off, Luke, it was one of those days - and besides, you set up our goal).
Allow me to talk you through the process.
Any home or away fan who would like to use the service has to register first - the club only has 10 of the little radio receivers and needs to be able to track down anyone who may forget to hand them back after the game.
The receiver looks like a miniature walkie-talkie which even the most technologically inept could operate. You simply turn it on, plug in the earpiece and listen to the dulcet tones of the commentators.
The only tiny issue with the equipment is the earpiece - a generic ‘one size fits all’ affair which loops over the ear and never quite stays in, meaning I had to hold it there for much of the match.
Standing there with the receiver in one hand and two fingers pressed against my ear as I peered at the pitch, I probably looked like I was guarding the Prime Minister rather than watching the game.
But that’s a minor point which will be solved by taking my own headphones next time.
The quality of the reception is outstanding. Even when the ear piece was balanced precariously on my lobe as I gave my arm a rest, the voices of the commentary team came through loud and clear.
The team - Adam Inker, Harry Maynard, Ben Adams and Richard Fox - are all volunteers who trained throughout the summer to ensure they could not only keep up with the play but could describe it instantly and in such a way that fans using the receivers could picture what was happening.
Working in pairs, they will take turns at describing the matches for the rest of the season.
So how did the audio description differ from the kind of commentary you would get on the radio?
Firstly, Adam and co, focussed entirely on the match - they told us exactly where the ball was, what the players were doing and how the action was playing out. There was no rambling off into self-indulgent statistics-sharing as the poor listener wondered what was happening.
That’s not to say they didn’t provide player information; they just kept it precise and never allowed it to draw their concentration from the most important part of the game - the location of the ball.
Unlike ordinary match commentary which might, for example, state ‘Rooney passes to Harrold who knocks it on to Edwards’, the description is much more visual.
They might describe Edwards taking the ball onto his right foot as he jogs down the centre of the pitch to the edge of the centre circle before passing with his left foot to Simon Walton who was running down the right.
Such detail makes it much easier for the fans to fill in the rather blurry gaps and picture what was happening on the pitch.
There are even moments when those using the audio description find out what’s going on before their eagle-eyed fellow fans.
When the referee pulled back the play as Winbledon attacked because Liam Donnelly was floored, the Dons fans were furious and some of the Crawley fans confused.
With a perfect view of the play, Adam and co instantly told listeners Liam had sustained a rather bloody face injury, which made the ref’s decision make sense (to Crawley fans at least).
It’s hard to describe exactly how important the audio descriptive service is to people with poor vision. It’s the football equivalent of a Kindle - ensuring dodgy eyesight doesn’t prevent anyone from being able to do what other people take for granted. Whether reading or watching the footie, it’s a service which re-opens doors which were feared permanently closed.
To be able to enjoy a live game again and form an opinion on the team’s performance based on more than just the final score was a pleasure I didn’t realise I had missed until it was returned.
It’s a shame not every club offers the service to make away games as accessible as home matches. Wembley Stadium offers it as do teams including Leicester City and Nottingham Forest.
Hopefully others will catch on.
Anyone who would like to register for the audio descriptive commentary service can email Barbara Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or leave a message for her at main reception on 01293 410000.
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