Cambridge United volunteers give second sight

Cambridge United’s miserable run of four consecutive defeats – with three goals conceded in each of them – came to an end in the best way possible – with a battling 2-1 win at Tamworth at the end of February. As the U’s earned a creditable goalless draw against an accomplished Forest Green Rovers side on Saturday, the Abbey Habit gained a new perspective on the action.

For dedicated football fans, our attendance at a live game, experiencing the highs and lows – and there have been many lows following Cambridge over the past decade – is something we take for granted. You can’t get the real matchday experience on television, however much of your hard-earned cash you syphon into Mr Murdoch’s cavernous coffers. Even in the Conference, there is nothing like being there.

If you are blind or partially-sighted, however, it’s a very different story. There are around two million people in the UK with a sight problem and many people who are visually impaired choose to stay away from football grounds because there are no facilities to accommodate them. The Royal National Institute for the Blind campaigned hard for this to change and the ‘Soccer Sight’ project was the result.

Apart from generally improving access to games, ‘Soccer Sight’ provides live matchday audio description to blind and partially-sighted fans at a number of clubs, including Cambridge United. Run entirely by volunteers, it has enabled fans who previously sat at home listening to the local radio commentary to actually attend games and to stand or sit with their mates whilst listening to their own dedicated commentary via a small receiver and earpiece.

Amazingly, only two other non-league clubs (and only about a third of all Premier and Football League clubs) provide anything similar and, like many volunteer-based and therefore free-to-use services, new people are always needed to ensure it reaches its small but appreciative audience. As a long-standing volunteer at the Abbey – I have been writing for the matchday programme for a number of years so I decided to get involved, so when United played Forest Green I traded my place on the Habbin Stand terrace for a seat in the press area alongside experienced describers Neil Cornwell and Sam Ludford.

The audio description service that Neil, Sam and the team provide – and that I will be providing too when I have absorbed their expertise – gives its audience a much more detailed description of the action than its radio counterpart. The idea is to allow blind and partially-sighted fans to enjoy the matchday experience live at the ground by describing what they can’t see, so it’s much more detailed than the radio commentary and faster-paced. The emphasis is on where the ball is, where the players are, so listeners at the game can match what they hear in the ground with a descriptive commentary, but without distractions.

I’m one of a number of new trainees working to swell the team to nine describers. With a fair wind, and some practice after sitting with the experts again at next Saturday’s match against Woking, I’ll be let loose behind the microphone at a future United home game. Watch this space to find out how I get on.

Michael Barnes