‘It’s setting surroundings. What’s the pitch like, is there a slope?’ - Football through the eyes of a blind fan

Ronnie Wilkes (wearing flat cap) and his friend and commentator Ian Boardman, who attend junior football matches together. Picture: Scott Louden
Ronnie Wilkes (wearing flat cap) and his friend and commentator Ian Boardman, who attend junior football matches together. Picture: Scott Louden
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For those unable to see the game, personalised commentary can bring the action to life in a most remarkable way, writes Daniel Gray

They stood on the mound at Station Park, home of Nairn County FC. Father and son, waiting for goals to happen. Father remarked upon the game, but not in the occasional, catchphrase manner of the standard issue Scottish football Dad with his ‘bile yer heid’ referees and ‘och wheesht’ opponents. His conversation was constant, descriptive, unyielding; steady verses for build-up play rising to bold choruses for shots on goal.

Moving nearer, I could see that the two were standing close together, tight as matchsticks in a box. Dad was white-haired, son in early middle-age. Though blind, through his father’s words, he never missed a kick, hack or tantrum. Here was unbound affection – for football, yes, but most of all between a papa and his boy. Halos fuzz above humanity in the most unlikely of places. Even football grounds.

I thought of them in August when passing through Inverclyde. “BLIND FURY” bawled the headline of the Greenock Telegraph, “Morton deny fans access to special commentary box”.

According to the story, a visually impaired Morton fan named David Robertson had arrived at Cappielow for a game, expecting to assume his customary position in a dedicated commentary room. However, locks on the access door had been changed and the room left out of bounds. “I’ve been a loyal fan for 30 years,” said Robertson, “I feel I’ve been treated wrongly.”

Responding, the club cited health and safety concerns and offered Robertson “a suitable place to take in the games as our guest”.

‘Yes I’m a blind football supporter, but I’m just a football supporter,” says Ronnie Wilkes, a Hearts fan I have known for several years.

“Me and my mates from school always talked about the minutiae of football, how it affects you. You think of the same things as everyone else. The memories. When I started going to Tynecastle it was spearmint chewing gum, macaroon bars, Wagon Wheels and diluting cartons of orange in the 1970s. Or lying flat because of a Tynecastle pie, in your sick bed aged 16.”

Ronnie cannot remember a time when he wasn’t infatuated with football. There is wholesome laughter when he recalls, in childhood, accidentally saving a penalty struck by the best young footballer in his village. Growing up in Ayrshire, he was taken first to Beith Juniors and later Ibrox. Still retaining partial sight, young Ronnie used a monocular to view matches. From the mid-1970s, owing to the influence of their teacher at Edinburgh’s Royal Blind School, Ronnie and classmates began to attend games at Tynecastle. They joined the Hearts Blind Party, overcoming late-arriving, bevvy-reeking hospital radio commentators and a curious decision by the club to move unsighted supporters to a section of the away end. “You went into this box made of wooden slats and they commentated through the gaps. It never felt quite right,” recalls Ronnie. “I don’t know why they were exposing their disabled people to the joys of away fans.”

Then, in 1986, Ronnie lost his vision completely. He pondered how best to cope and sought solutions to maintain the life he knew. To continue cycling, a tandem was purchased. To meet an increasing fascination with football beyond Tynecastle, he advertised for a roving personal commentator in the Edinburgh Evening News.

In January 1930, a newspaper article related how one blind Dalry fan, William Lachlan, consumed his team’s matches: “It appears that he listens for the thud of the ball on the ground or on the toe of a player’s boot and fills in the rest of the details by listening to the comments of those around him… There is always someone ready to act the part of announcer for Willie.”

There was little in the way of assistance and commentary provision for the blind and

partially sighted in Scotland until 1937. That year sportswriter, broadcaster and actor Robert ‘Rex’ Kingsley commentated for a dozen men of the Glasgow Royal Blind Asylum at a fixture between Third Lanark and Hearts. With no amplification available, Kingsley hollered his words over tides of crowd noise, “remembering that every time I stopped talking, I was pulling the curtain down over my party’s eyes”.

The concept blossomed. In the years surrounding the Second World War, Rex Blind Parties were established in grounds throughout Scotland. Volunteers poured forth to commentate, clubs set aside free seated areas and soon hundreds of blind and partially-sighted fans had a sociable way to experience match days. “Some especially thoughtful fairy must surely have been hovering around Mr Kingsley when he conceived the idea of commentating on football matches to selected parties of blind folk,” declared the Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser in late 1938. Eighty years on, Rex Blind Parties are still thriving.

While grateful to the start Rex Parties had given him, Ronnie craved independence and to encounter, in his words, “the joys of football overall”. Although his newspaper appeal did not provide a palpable hit, it did lead, indirectly and eventually, to his meeting the right man for the job. Since they met, Ronnie and Ian Boardman, often accompanied by the latter’s wife, Anne, have been to over 240 football grounds together. “Ian has become a great mate,” says Ronnie. “He includes me in everything he does.”

Ronnie did not mean to become a ground hopper. “It was an incidental gathering of grounds as time went on,” he notes. “It’s about getting the different experiences of other fans and the quirks in different grounds. It’s about the mince baps, the soup, the locals. Never knowing why referees bother. The unique character of these places.”

Though Tartan Army veterans, both men seem most besotted with the Junior game. Ian’s pre-commentary description is vital and enriching for Ronnie: “At Junior games you can be standing and hearing about the hills in the background, and hearing what’s around – food hatches, a pavilion, a factory behind the ground. It’s setting the surroundings. What’s the pitch like and is there a slope?” On one occasion at a Whitehill Welfare game, Ronnie became so immersed in the atmosphere that he offered the much-abused referee his blind stick. “I said ‘Here, you need this more than I do’. And I felt really bad after I’d done it, because apparently he looked mortified.”

The supporting life has not always been easy. While in Macedonia for a Scotland game, security guards confiscated that same stick. “We were standing there arguing with them. They were determined to take my cane. We were trying to explain that this is part of who I am, that I need it. Suddenly a well-built, kilted ginger-haired Scotsman appeared, saying ‘Give him it back right now’. These two chaps quaked in their boots and the cane was back in my hands.”

Ronnie talks of his obsession with football kits: “Maybe it’s because I had some sight. At school, we got to choose the team shirts and one of the teachers had this book of strips, wonderful colours.”

When he visualises modern matches, are players still wearing the shirts he remembers best?

“That’s absolutely right. I have Hearts in the old-fashioned maroon, no trimmings, really round collars. Or 1986, the lovely silver top, maroon shorts, white socks. I often picture that.”

Colours frozen and transposed to now. A love of football vital, current and deep. Just a supporter like all of us, from Nairn to Cappielow.