Professional football’s suspension last March hit fans hard – but the impact was felt especially keenly by disabled supporters.
The coronavirus pandemic forced a halt to action on Friday, March 13, 2020, and although elite-level sport has returned, supporters have only been back into venues for a brief period – and in small numbers – in the 12 months since.
Combined with lockdowns, it has had the effect of exacerbating the sense of isolation for some disabled fans, particularly those whose conditions have forced them to shield because they are classed as clinically extremely vulnerable to becoming seriously ill with Covid-19.
Peter Carr from Tottenham’s Disabled Supporters’ Association told the PA news agency: “We had a lot of people whose only principal contact was going to a game. They lived on their own, they were on benefits, with no carers. They saw nobody.
“The only way they would communicate with people was by going out, and their principal thing was going to the football.
“When you look at the truth of the virus, it was frightening. It terrified a lot of disabled people.”
Carr and the Spurs’ DSA worked to alleviate the loneliness and fears of their members by holding regular Zoom calls, which thanks to Tottenham featured the occasional guest star, including goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
“To be actually able to see the guy, ask him about his family, was huge,” Carr said.
“Two of the players who were coming down the corridor at the training ground saw what he was doing and basically photobombed the call, ruffling his hair and lying across him and stuff like that.
“People saw the fun nature of the players and they felt, ‘I’m that close I can touch them’.”
Another to join was former player Gary Mabbutt, who has made well over 1,000 phone calls to Spurs fans simply to brighten their days.
“It’s stuff like that which has kept a lot of our members going,” Carr said.
The DSA also invited fans to a ‘Virtual South Stand’ watchalong for the match against Crystal Palace last weekend, as part of the Weeks of Action campaign from disability awareness group Level Playing Field, and plans to do the same for this weekend’s north London derby.
Fans did briefly return to stadiums late last year, and Carr attended the game against Arsenal on December 6 as part of a 2,000-strong crowd, when the capital was in tier two of the Government’s regional approach to restrictions.
He admits that even though he had been consulted by Spurs over the protocols and felt they had done everything possible to make the venue safe for disabled fans, he still had reservations.
“Going in, I was holding my breath, because I’m with this group of people and I don’t know what their background is, and yes I was nervous,” he said.
“When I told people I was going they would say, ‘Are you sure? Aren’t you taking a risk?’
“But I was happy, having been through the protocols with Spurs directly, that they really had taken things on board, especially in relation to disabled supporters.”
Carr says there is “great respect” between disabled fans and their able-bodied counterparts at Tottenham, but generally speaking hopes the pandemic creates a more compassionate football fan.
“There will be a degree of better awareness – people have had close family getting a debilitating, potentially life-threatening illness, or have had it themselves,” he said.
“I’m hoping there will be a bit more compassion, because you don’t tend to have that until it happens to you personally.
“Where somebody has had Covid, or they have been into ICU but they have come out in one piece, I hope they will be more compassionate.
“People might appreciate more how someone is living on a day-to-day basis with a hugely debilitating condition.”