Hadley is obsessed with football and loves watching his team – Southampton Football Club. The Saints. He watches them regularly on tv, shouts and screams at the telly as much as the rest of us, has a brilliant day when they win and not so much when they don’t.
But the thing that he wants to do the most is watch Saints in person at St Mary’s stadium, with his friends and family. But currently, the stadium doesn’t have a toilet he can use. You see, Hadley is disabled (he has Cerebral Palsy) and requires a special kind of toilet called a Changing Places (with an adult-sized changing bench and hoist) to answer a call of nature. He is not unique in this requirement. Hundreds of thousands of other children and adults also need these facilities.
Hadley has been begging me (his mum) to let him go to St Mary’s, but I can’t let him, as I’m not happy about him lying on a toilet floor to have his nappy changed. Not at a football stadium. You can only imagine what he might pick up and I’m too scared that he will be injured being lifted to and from his wheelchair to the floor. I also don’t believe he should have to endure that. I think he and thousands of other people deserve more.
But when he asked specifically if he could have a ticket for his sixth birthday, it really upset me. Because I knew that a facility would not be in place before his birthday. I knew I was not going to be able to let him go and that this would break his heart (and mine!).
I’ve been publicly campaigning for a Changing Places at St Mary’s stadium. Challenging a multi-million pound Premier League club is tiring and emotionally draining. But it has been necessary in order to ensure Hadley and others are not excluded from supporting their team and so that visiting supporters with these needs can come to our ground.
The support and encouragement we have received from other football fans has been overwhelming and has kept me going.
After being ‘touched’ by our campaign, one particular lady contacted Arsenal Football Club to see if they could make it possible for Hadley to see his beloved Saints for his birthday. ‘Arsenal?’ I hear you ask. ‘I thought you said Southampton?’ I know, stick with me.
You see Saints were playing Arsenal this weekend just gone, at The Emirates stadium. They have a Changing Places for their supporters and visiting fans already.
The wonderful people at Arsenal responded immediately and invited Hadley, myself, my hubby and Hadley’s twin sister Erica, to watch Southampton at The Emirates – as their guests! You can imagine the excitement!
Sadly, Southampton lost the game, 2-1, but everything else about the day was brilliant!
What a heart-warming gesture by Arsenal. Not only were we given tickets to watch the match on Club level with the extra facilities and comfort that comes with it, but we were also invited to the restricted area before the match to see the players arrive, something that we would not have been able to do as your average visiting fan.
The kind Arsenal staff even made a point of letting the Southampton staff and players know that Hadley was there, so that they could come and say hi to him and he could get some photos with them! He was beaming!
We also bumped into Bob Wilson who came straight over to us and had a chat with the kids about the Arsenal time capsule they were looking at. (What a lovely lovely man).
Every member of staff that we encountered at Arsenal was a gem, from security who checked over our car on the way in, to the stewards and catering staff and the generous events team who invited us. We were made to feel so welcome.
At no point did we feel like we were a problem or an inconvenience, just because we had some additional needs. The day was just about having fun and enjoying the game. Just as it should be. It was an amazing feeling not to have to worry about how and where we could change Hadley safely. And the Changing Places was brilliant. Clean, tidy and most importantly available whenever we needed it!
We felt like royalty. All of our other needs were considered too, from accessible undercover parking on site at the stadium to the location of the tickets close to the Changing Places facility. Even down to ensuring that the club mascot was kept a safe distance from Hadley so as not to upset him and ruin his day (he is absolutely petrified of adults in fancy dress, and so as cuddly as Gunner was, he was not Hadley’s cup of tea!).
But of course we are not royalty. It’s just when you are not used to being able to visit a venue like this or witnessing staff who understand your needs and cater for them, it kind of feels like you are.
The stadium is world-class. And as the first ever Premier League game Hadley has attended live, it is going to leave a lasting impression. It has set the bar high for the future matches he attends.
The view from the Club level wheelchair platform in the corner of the stadium was really good. Close enough to see everything, but high enough to get a great perspective. Also it was well undercover, so no getting wet in the front row – one of the many gripes I know lots of supporters have with the location of wheelchair spaces at sporting venues, particularly football grounds.
Even Hadley’s sensory needs were considered, with no supporters directly behind us, keeping noise levels more controlled. This was really great for us, as Hadley’s condition means he is very easily startled by loud noise.
To say that Hadley enjoyed himself does not do this day justice. He was a little apprehensive during the build up, as he was unsure of what to expect, but his face literally lit up when he saw the players on the pitch and he did not take his eyes off the ball for the entire 90 something minutes.
I was so proud of him and so happy for him. He was in his element and enjoyed the electric atmosphere that comes with this level of footie as well as all the goals – even if they weren’t all for his side!
He even played it cool when Saints went one-nil up in the first half and did a silent air punch with his fist so as not to upset the Arsenal fans we were sat with. Because he knew if it wasn’t for Arsenal, he wouldn’t have been there to see it!
What wonderful memories for this little football fan to cherish – even if Arsenal did go on to win the match! It’s such a shame that his own club (Southampton) couldn’t have made those memories for him.
We would like to say a huge thank you to Arsenal FC. We will be forever grateful for your generosity and compassion. Even my husband (who is a Spurs fan!) was so impressed. And that surely says it all!
We really hope other clubs take your considerate attitude towards those supporters who need a little extra help in order to enjoy a match day. It makes the world of difference and you should be so proud of having a Changing Places and making Hadley’s dream a reality.