From the most avid to the most slouch-like; from the noisiest to the quietest and from the most travelled to the stay-at-home; football attracts many different types of supporters. At different times in my life I have been all these.

Sadly, now I have slumped from a once proud and seasoned Ayresome Park regular to armchair status. This can partly be blamed on disability, but not totally. It is just as much linked to the fact that armchairs are addictive, cheaper and near to radiators. Sensing I might be missing something, the decision to look for renewed enthusiasm on the terraces was taken one cold February morning. I wanted to give support to one of our local clubs, but whichever one I chose needed to give me support also; the attempt to progress from armchair to wheelchair supporter would be no mean feat.

Gazing out at the frost on the day of the big decision, I envisaged a blanket, thermal gloves and flask of hot chocolate to complete the picture, before I could be tempted out.

Since Victoria Park was one of only two North-East grounds I had yet to visit, (the other being the Stadium Of Light) that was the chosen venue.

There are many ways a football team can win support; employing someone helpful to answer phone calls and deal with inquiries thoughtfully and sympathetically is a very good place to start. This was my experience when I rang the club to ask about disabled facilities. The young lady I spoke to had all the time in the world to discuss my needs and never gave the impression that any question was too silly or unreasonable.

Since, as I was told, there are only fifteen wheelchair spaces, it would be wise to book in advance, so this I did. Paying by credit card meant the tickets were posted to my door, which cut down the likelihood of having to queue and ensured entry to the ground. It was also suggested that many supporters use the Asda car park which is just a short walk away, on a good path. Alternatively, there was the possibility of displaying my blue disc and parking on the double yellow lines on Clarence Road which, I was assured, is near to the Disabled Enclosure.

My son and I planned to see Hartlepool play Mansfield and continue their run up the football league.

Missing the entrance to Clarence Road from the roundabout, we found ourselves in the Asda car park. True enough the paths were well made-up, complete with dropped kerbs and clear crossing points, but the bank up to the railway bridge would have been impossible to climb if I had not had my son to push me in my wheelchair. On reaching Clarence Road, we found it quiet, virtually traffic-free and significantly nearer the Cyril Knowles Stand, our destination.

It was clear that this would undoubtedly have been the better of the two options but the presence of police no-waiting cones along the road was a bit off-putting. I sought to clarify the position on parking on Clarence Road later with Cleveland Police. Their response was that car parking with a disabled badge is allowed where there are cones but police do ask that people do not park too close to the ground. In retrospect, I would recommend leaving cars on Clarence Road towards the traffic lights and as near as you can reasonably get to the entrance for wheelchairs, at the north-east corner of the Cyril Knowles stand.

We reached this entrance by travelling the length of the stand only to be told that we needed to return along its length to reach our seats at the opposite end. All of which begs the question: "Why is the entrance there, and not at the end of the disabled enclosure?"

We asked each steward we passed for block DI only to receive puzzled frowns in reply. We would then add "disabled enclosure ?" to our original question and witness faces lighting up and fingers pointing to the opposite end, many yards away.

Personally, I prefer DI as a reference because enclosure does not sound welcoming. We arrived, passing the cheerleaders on the way, and noting excellent access to the toilet block, which included one disabled cubicle with ramped access. Our steward nonchantly replied, when asked which seats were ours, "sit on any of them" and then proceeded to block our view, presumably guarding against a wheelchair-led pitch invasion. We discovered afterwards, that our seats in row A were a step up from where we sat at pitch level and would have given us a much better view. A more disabled-aware steward could have provided much more help. Anyway, we asked her to move so that we could get a better view and she was never seen again.

I could get to like third Division football. The atmosphere from the crowd was full of the lively spontaniety you only get from people standing. The fans chanted throughout.

Eventually, we witnessed a wonderful Hartlepool goal which set us up nicely for the push home, through the building blizzard blowing straight off the North Sea. It was time for us lads to be away but, despite one or two problems, we left with a sense that we had been to a friendly ground and sitting in an armchair at home does not compare.

BEST MOMENT OF THE DAY : We had a perfect view of Hartlepool's equalising goal.

WORST MOMENT OF THE DAY : The long haul from the Asda car park to Clarence Road.


Hartlepool United FC, call (01429) 272584 for inquiries and bookings Tickets: £12 includes entry for yourself and an escort in the Town End Disabled Enclosure (+£1 card-handling fee)


Parking: For blue/orange disc holders only, Clarence Road, north of Cyril Knowles stand.

Published: March 8th 2001