words: Paul Severn
Bernard Sullivan, a Forest fan for over 40 years, set off to the City Ground on 7th May 2017 to watch Forest fight for their Championship lives against Ipswich Town.
“From the very outset you could feel the tension in the ground,” said Bernard. “From the first minute, it felt just like we were hanging on with two minutes to go. It was that atmosphere throughout the whole game, all around me. A tension buzz. We all just wanted the ref to blow and end it.”
Few Forest fans know the sounds of the City Ground quite like Bernard. He is registered blind and follows the action using audio description commentary, along with the shouts, gasps and cheers of the crowd around him. Bernard was born with very little sight and attended a boarding school for visually impaired children in Newcastle. His sight gradually deteriorated to the point where he has virtually no vision at all, but he has been a dedicated Forest fan since the late 1970s after moving to Nottingham.
“My heart was ready to burst that day,” he remembered. “When Chris Cohen’s shot hit the back of the net I lost my ear piece. The headset went everywhere. I had to ask three times what had happened – there was no chance of hearing the commentary for that goal! I was tingling all over my body and you don’t need to see it to feel that.
“But there’s also the silences too that I notice – like the hush after a bad tackle by a Forest player or when the crowd is distracted by something off the pitch such as the stewards sorting out some trouble in the crowd.”
Nathan Edge was partially sighted since the age of six and aged 19, lost all sight. He feared his passion for Mansfield Town and playing football was over.
“I was playing a pre-season friendly and I was struggling to see the ball. The hospital said it was due to a bleed in the back of my eye. They tried to save my sight but I lost my sight in one eye and then the other shortly after.
“It was awful. In everyday life there were a lot of challenges, but I had loved playing and watching football. I thought I’d never kick a ball again. I’d been a Mansfield season ticket holder since I was six, going home and away, but it felt like I didn’t belong there any more. But at three o’clock on a Saturday it didn’t feel right if I was at home either.
“It left a big gap. I give a lot of credit to my dad. He encouraged me to go back to football with him. I think he knew it wasn’t quite the same for me, but he missed me going with him.
“We’d come back into the Football League and it was Notts County away. I remember going to that match and we weren’t expected to get anything. We won 2-0 and the atmosphere was electric. I felt part of it and it felt like I’d fallen back in love with football. Football was part of me again.”
Bernard said: “As a visually impaired Forest supporter I’ve sat in various places around the ground over the years. In the late 1970s, I was given a card which allowed me to stand at the front of the Main Stand behind the advertising boards – although it was hit and miss and not all stewards were aware that this was allowed!”
Bernard was then moved to sit near the Junior Reds section in the Main Stand, and then moved to different locations in the Bridgford end but the availability of special audio description headsets have since allowed him to sit where he likes, which these days is in the Castle Club area of the Trent End.
Bernard explains: “From a blind person’s perspective, being a football fan has come on leaps and bounds over the last ten years, but in the last three to five years even more so.
“From the late 80s and early 90s local radio commentary became more widely available rather than just for big games, cup ties or even just the second half, so my guide no longer needed to give an explanation of what was happening. But sometimes the stations could be a bit hit and miss whether they covered the game and still today there can be a slight delay on the commentary to the live action. At some points I’d be cheering something after everyone else. Now the local clubs have introduced the new audio description service and in my opinion that’s been a major step forward. It’s a great innovation.”
One man who has been integral to the development of audio description commentary at Forest, Mansfield and other clubs is Alan March.
Alan picks up the story: “I entered a competition held by the BBC and RNIB looking for volunteer commentators for the blind community at football matches. I won the competition and as a prize I commentated on the BBC Red Button for the Liverpool v West Ham Cup Final. I'd never commentated in my life so technically that was my debut!
“From that day audio description is something I have always done and along with the expertise of my wife, Francesca, Alan March Sport was born in 2012. I was the announcer at the aquatics centre at the London Olympics and Paralympics. We are suppliers of commentators and hosts for a range of sporting events, but the audio description commentary service has never stopped. It never will. I owe audio description a debt for giving me my chance and it’s something I’ll never forget.”
Alan commentated at the City Ground from 2009 and has developed the service significantly since then – taking the full package of equipment and trained volunteer commentators to other clubs – with Leicester City, Crawley Town, Mansfield Town and most recently Wrexham all covered by Alan March Sport.
Alan explained: “Wembley stadium use our company as their sole provider of audio description commentators for sporting events at the stadium and in 2017 we became the official training partners for the Centre for Access to Football in Europe (CAFE), an organisation that works with UEFA and FIFA to improve access for disabled supporters. This has meant commentating on the Champions League and Europa League finals for the past two seasons.”
Liam Hill has commentated for Alan March Sport at both Mansfield and Forest and has gone on to work for the company at other sporting events.
“Football commentating is something that's always interested me and had always been a possible career choice but I never knew how to go about doing it,” said Liam. “I went to a course in Leicester, but being honest, before then, I didn't know too much about audio description commentary.
“The idea that you're bringing the beautiful game to blind and partially sighted spectators by providing a tailored service is fantastic. I love the fact we're providing bridges for people who otherwise would miss out. Nathan has told us we are one of the main reasons he's now back going to see his favourite team and that his overall matchday experience has completely changed for the better. That makes it worth it. And I just love football, so being able to commentate on it is a privilege.”
Nathan explained: “Last season was the first season the Stags got the audio description commentary. I go to some away games where they don’t have the audio description. Commentary streamed from the internet is about a minute behind so I’m listening to conversations around me – picking up the positive and negative vibes.
“Alan March Sport takes football commentary to the next level. Television commentary has long silences when the ball is in play. On radio, there’s good detail but not full detail. Alan March Sport commentators are trained to deliver commentary to visually impaired people. The commentators will add in as much detail as they can and really build up a good picture right down to the colour of the boots and I can follow the action at the same time as the rest of the supporters.
“It has opened up football to me completely.”
Bernard added: “The commentators have a lot of knowledge about Forest. They have all the interesting stats and you can tell they’ve been trained, and they are passionate too!”
Alan explained: “We wouldn't leave fans guessing. Commentators in modern times are more likely to scream a player’s name as he shoots and they say nothing as the ball nestles in the net or goes agonisingly wide. Our commentators would give you the end outcome straight away so that you, the visually impaired spectator, can experience the same outcome as any spectator using their eyesight to form that opinion.”
When it comes to forming opinions about his club, Bernard explained: “I’m always one of the last to go in with my opinion. I listen to all the opinions around the table in the pub, the radio and the professionals and then form my opinion – having listened to the commentary live. It’s the opinions that make the game so wonderful.”
Nathan added: “I’m now part of a weekly podcast called Mansfield Matters. It’s been a challenging thing to be involved in as a blind person because at first, I felt like I wasn’t entitled to an opinion because I hadn’t seen what happened. No one has actually said that to me, but I was always worried and scared of that. Sometimes on the podcast I have to say I don’t have an opinion on something because I couldn’t see what happened. But the commentary and picking up on conversations around me helps me build an understanding of how each game has gone and I’ve gained confidence. I listen to three match reports after each game and gather as much data as I can to form my own opinion.”
Bernard explained: “You follow the noises of the crowd – like the intake of breath when the opposition is through on goal. You pick up the mood. A Forest attack sounds like gentle crescendo, especially if it builds from the back. You are listening to people around you.”
When a Forest goal is scored Bernard can feel the surge of the crowd but says: “Sometimes everyone sees the flag whilst I’m celebrating at full pelt! My son says: ‘no Dad, the flag’s up’ while I’m asking who scored because I can’t hear the commentary at that point.”
Nathan said: “You can tell it’s a good chance when everyone stands up and 95% of the time you know a goal is about to go in. Time seems to stand still as people take a deep breath before the roar. You can feel it happening.”
Around the time Nathan got back into watching football he also discovered blind football and fell back in love with playing again – winning five international caps to date with England.
When it comes to watching Mansfield Nathan joins family and friends at the pub before the game to have a few pre-match drinks before heading into the ground at two o’clock to pick up his headset.
“Going to games and the social aspect is one of the greatest feelings for me,” said Nathan. “I see people I’ve known for years and years – people I’ve grown up with. A football family.”
Nathan is now compiling a study on which football league clubs provide commentary for visually impaired supporters. It will provide information on how to access commentary and to help the push to make English football more inclusive.
“My partner asked recently what I would do if I got my sight back for the day. I told her I’d like to look back on all the goals from the season to see how they compared to what was in my mind!
“I do a lot of things for the charity Guide Dogs, talking about my experiences with different groups – and now integrating football as a new chapter in my life. I hope my story helps others going through a similar situation. It’s something I’m passionate about. It’s funny, before I lost my sight I didn’t like talking to two people, never mind a group!”
Bernard can’t imagine a life without football and Nottingham Forest. It took on a new dimension in the mid-1990s when he started going to matches with his son, Darren.
“This was around the time we had Stan Collymore. There was a flood of expectation when he got the ball. If the pass had gone to Collymore and he had space, you just knew. My son would say ‘yes Dad, he’s got it’ and he was off and away. What a talent.
“Those days developed our father and son bond. He became as hooked as I was as we travelled to games home and away. It became unique to us after I was working all week. Dad and Darren time. We still sit together today. He’s 33 now and we have a couple of beers before in the pub and he gets me to the game.
“I was born visually impaired because unfortunately my mother contracted German measles whilst she was carrying me – these days known as rubella. A lot of rubella cases ended up with deafness too, and some learning difficulties as well. I only got the sight loss and it could’ve been a lot worse.
“People ask me what I get out of it. Football is my adrenaline rush for the week. My wife knows whether we’ve won or lost the moment we walk through the door after a match. If you feel the same way emotionally about your club, you don’t lose out.”