By Russell Kempson
It is close to midday. Warner Duff tucks into his lunch of jacket potato, baked beans and salad in the Legends Bar in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand at Portman Road. A photograph of Arnold Muhren, an Ipswich Town legend, adorns the wall behind him. Duff has been on the go since early morning; he deserves a break.
As the disability liaison officer for Ipswich, Duff's matchday starts early. And for the visit of Barnsley, in the npower Championship on a numbingly cold Saturday in Suffolk, it is no different. He constantly takes calls on his mobile phone, always monitoring who is coming to the game and who isn't. Sorting out unforeseen problems, last-minute hitches.
Able-bodied supporters have no such issues. They turn up, watch the game, cheer or jeer, have a beer, go home. And yet for the disabled fans, in whatever capacity, there are hurdles to climb, issues to overcome. Duff resolves them. Come rain, hail or the recent avalanche of snow. It is his job, the job that he loves.
"I normally get here about 8.30ish on matchday," Duff says. "I live only five minutes away from the club so that's quite handy. Mind you, my house is in a little close on a bit of an incline. Because of the snow, I had to park at the top of the road last night. The day before, I got stuck. The car just wouldn't go anywhere. Five of my neighbours had to push me up the road.
"Once I get to the ground, I have tickets to organise for those who pay on the day. Some disabled people don't have access to debit or credit cards. It's easier for them if they pay in cash. And it's also another way of providing a service for them. I've also got to sort out tickets for the away games, the next one which is at Bristol City. We have a number who go away regularly and, as and when required, we put on accessible transport for them."
Crunching the numbers at Ipswich makes impressive reading. The club has more than 200 disabled season ticket-holders and 104 wheelchair positions dotted around the ground in eight designated areas. Some close to pitch level, for those who like a worm's eye view of the action; some in the upper tiers, affording a magnificent bird's eye view from up on high. "We've got some of the best viewing areas for disabled fans in the country," Warner says proudly.
Ipswich cater for everyone - the visually impaired, wheelchair users, children and adults with learning difficulties or mental health illnesses, children with autism. "Right across the whole spectrum," Warner explains. "You'd be surprised how many fans don't realise that we have all these facilities.
"We also look after season ticket holders who may have broken legs or had an operation and still want to come to football but can't access their own seats. So we'll transfer them into an accessible area, depending on what they need. We want them to keep on coming, whatever their circumstances, and we make sure that they can.
"There are a few improvements we'd like to make. One of the areas where we put the away fans is in a home area. They are not segregated. Of course, there's never any trouble, it's just that the away fans, understandably, would prefer to be with their own fans. It's all down to cost but that's something we'd like to do for them."
Duff, 55, is the liaison officer on a part-time basis. He also helps out with the security at Portman Road part-time. All of which adds up to a full-time occupation for the former Royal Navy anti-submarine sonar operator. He started supporting Ipswich in 1974, after moving down from his native Scotland to join the Navy, and took on his role with the disabled fans in 1999.
"I was a season ticket holder in those days," Duff recalls. "We had more and more disabled fans coming to the football but, at the time, we had only one area for them and it was getting full. People were having to turn up at 12 o'clock or one o'clock just to get a place. They were free then.
"So we put a system in place whereby people could access tickets before the match rather than on the day on a first come, first served basis. We put a bit of order into it all so that people knew exactly where they were going when they got here. We started charging the disabled person but allowed them to have a free carer.
"I was just a fan but, through personal experience, I had an interest in making it better for other disabled people. I knew exactly what disabled people needed and what should be provided. I also made sure that the key staff had disability awareness training. It's all just grown from there."
Duff heads a matchday team of three, which also includes his wife Debbie, and Sandra Brett. Yet others are involved, too, to make the day run smoothly - Sid, Phil and Peter, the match commentators for the visually impaired, and the three to four stewards ever present in each of the disabled sections. "We have the same stewards for every game so they get to know every person's specific needs," Warner says. "It's almost like a befriending scheme. They get very close to those they look after."
Four years ago, Duff's efforts were recognised nationally when he won the Fan of the Year at the annual Football League awards evening in London. "I knew that I had been nominated," Warner says, "but when I found out that I'd won, it was unbelievable, quite emotional really. The award was not just for me, though. It was for what Ipswich and all the clubs in the League do for disabled fans. It was a collective award for all of us."
Lunch over, Duff takes me on a whistle-stop tour of Portman Road's disabled facilities. He needs the aid of mini-crutches - his "sticks" - to combat the cruel legacy of a fall from scaffolding and chronic back problems. Yet he moves at pace, taking numerous phone calls on the move as the harsh weather takes its toll and the ticket cancellations mount. "It's just too cold for some of them," he says.
Up on Level 3 in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, low-level counters at the food and drink kiosks provide easy access for wheelchair fans. And the viewing platform for them, high above one of the goals, is sensational. Warner takes another call, another cry off. At ground level, in a corner of the East of England Co-operative Stand next to the players' tunnel, is a favoured section of the younger fans. "They love it here," Warner says. "Sometimes, at the end, they can get the players' shirts."
Ipswich also provide facilities for disabled corporate guests, a family area, free car parking. All the executive boxes have wheelchair access. As sleet swirls around the ground and a groundsman re-marks the touchlines, Duff takes me to the Sir Bobby Robson Stand, with its four disabled viewing areas - one in each corner of the upper tier, behind the goal, and one in each corner of the lower.
The upper D1 section is Duff's chosen place for watching. "I like this one the best," he says. "Not too high, not too low. Just right." A cosy little bar nearby is also attractive and in which some fans, away from the Arctic chill, will later watch the second half on the TV screens.
It is 12.40pm. Scott Loach, the Ipswich goalkeeper, arrives and parks his car, Warner hurries off to check on everything and wife Debbie opens for business in a small cabin next to the main entrance. A regular stream of disabled fans pop in, pay for their tickets or scan their season ticket cards, have a chat and pop out.
So, too, Sid, the commentator for the visually impaired. He is a distinctive figure, with his white hair and a sparkling cross dangling from his left ear. Justin Earley - 'JJ' to his friends - also stops for a natter. JJ, 27, from Stowmarket, has heart problems but used to play for the Ipswich Town Disabled Football Club, which Duff ran.
"We played against the David Beckham Academy at seven-a-side three years in a row," JJ says. "Unfortunately, Beckham wasn't there. I wish he was. Warner's just a great man. Without all of his help over the years, I'd be stuck. He's been just brilliant for me."
Modesty prevents Duff from singing his own praises. But as well as winning Fan of the Year in 2009, he also won a regional citation in the Pride of Britain awards - the Pride of Anglia - and was voted Club Volunteer/Employee of the Year by the National Association of Disabled Supporters (NADS). The NADS plaque sits on a filing cabinet in the cabin.
"That was what you might call a good year," Debbie says. "Warner has done so much for the disabled over the years. Having a disability himself, he understands the problems. He used to be in a wheelchair but he's so much more mobile now. He's continually in pain and some days are good, some bad. And this weather certainly doesn't help. He still needs his sticks because if his back goes into a spasm, his legs could go at any time. But he'll do anything for anyone, even if it means having to put himself out. So many people look up to him."
On matchday, Debbie does her bit, too. When she is able to drag herself away from her handmade curtains and blinds business and her duties as treasurer of Seckford Golf Club, Woodbridge. Warner is the club captain, until he hands over the reigns later this month.
Debbie has a soft spot for elderly supporter Fran Ling and her black labrador guide dog, Rosie. "Fran prefers to sit somewhere other than the disabled areas," Debbie says. "She drops Rosie off here, picks up her headset and then goes off with her guide [June Stroud]. I look after Rosie during the match. She's lovely.
"She sits with me where dogs are allowed to go and the noise of the crowd never worries her. She sits quietly by my side, though she does get a bit fed up towards the end, especially if it's cold. After the match, Fran comes here to collect her. She always brings us a bar of chocolate, just to say thank you. She's so grateful. I love doing all this because we get to know everyone and I get to see them every match."
Sandra Brett has a natural empathy, too. Her disabled son, Christopher, an Ipswich fan, passed away in 1996. "After he died, I just kept coming here," Sandra says. "I've been with the disabled over the years and a lot of my friends had disabled children. It gives me an interest and you meet a lot of nice people."
When fans need assistance from the car park, Sandra sets forth, wheelchair at the ready. And she'll take them to the different stands, to their positions. She is glad, though, that she no longer has to drive a buggy, navigating the often-congested pathways of Portman Road. "I can't say I really enjoyed it that much," Sandra laughs. "It got a bit mad at times, driving along what I called my 'flightpath'. You had to make sure that you weren't running people over."
Kick-off approaches. The park behind the Sir Bobby Robson Stand is deep in snow. Few will be making the short route to the Alderman Canal and the local nature reserve. Few will use the ice-bound children's swings and slides, either.
The game is not the best. Warner and Debbie sit behind me in the Sir Bobby stand, near D1. Warner is right, the disabled fans have a great view - not too high, not too low. Eighty-year-old Ron Pogson, wheelchair-bound after suffering from a variety of ailments, looks on with Nicholas Butler, a garage owner from Shotley. "He's what I call my assistant," Ron jokes.
The pair have retired to the warmth of the bar at half time. "I've always been a season ticket holder and although I've missed a lot of games due to my health, they really look after me when I'm here," Ron adds. "Warner does a great job and the club and the stewards also."
Butler, now in his third season chaperoning Pogson but in their first season in lofty D1, concurs. "No complaints at all," he says. "All the facilities are top-notch and the help for the disabled is superb. If there are any problems, Warner sorts it out. He's great."
Pogson and Butler bravely venture out into the freeze box for the second half. Luke Chambers gives Ipswich the lead - the occupants of D1 explode in joy - but Barnsley equalise through Danny Rose, a substitute, in the 89th minute. The 175 fans who have travelled down from South Yorkshire gain their reward. The match finishes 1-1.
Warner trundles off to check all is well and, later, joins Debbie in the cabin to wind down the afternoon. "We still have a wheelchair outstanding," he says, "but hopefully that will arrive in the next few minutes. But we've got all the headsets back so that's good."
Sandra arrives on cue, the stray wheelchair safely in tow. "Well done," Warner says. "That's us done. All present and correct. Everything seems to have gone smoothly. It's been a relatively quiet game, due to the weather, and normally there's a bit more hustle and bustle, which shows just how busy it can get for us. We're 50 per cent down on people here today, often there can be a queue at the door."
Sunday beckons, a rare day off for Warner and Debbie. "We're going for breakfast at the golf club," Warner says. "I'm looking forward to that. But I'm almost always on call, it really feels like that sometimes. And you have to be. But that's the nature of the job. I never turn my phone off."
The Football League Fan of the Year in 2009 - as ever - is still doing his stuff in 2013.
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