Monday 10 June 2024

Wembley Woes

Ambushed by a wheelchair

When will I learn?

I’ve had a long time to get used to having MS – 22 years since the first symptoms – but I still overestimate my ability to walk for any distance. Maybe it’s because the weakness in my legs has had a creeping malevolence, making the reduction in the ground I can cover easy to ignore sometimes. Simpler to imagine a world where I have MS but can do the things I could do for the first 10 years post-diagnosis, like play football.

Speaking of which – and this may be a larger part of the reason for this particular episode – I was heading to watch my team, Leeds United, in the Championship Play-off Final at Wembley. The excitement, the scramble for tickets, the logistics of getting there were all effective distractions from my Dark Passenger.

So we were on our way. My son, E and I, and two of my good friends, on the M1 at a time when I would normally still be in bed on a Sunday morning. And I was driving. Mistake No.1, probably, though cruise control is a godsend to anyone with weak legs. Shame the speed was set to 50 for so much of it, as we waded through mile upon mile of roadworks.

We got parked in a disabled spot, right outside Harrow-on-the-Hill station, as planned. After a pint and a burger, the tube took us to Wembley Park in no time. By pure chance, we bumped into another couple of friends at the exit barrier. Fans were in full voice, the arch of Wembley suddenly dominated the skyline and everything for a moment felt right with the world.

Then it all began to go wrong.

We lost the two new members of our party in as quick a time as it took to find them. After scanning the crowd for a while without success, we ploughed on up Wembley Way till I began to feel tired and had to rest. The friends that had travelled with me were sitting in a different area of the ground, so we decided to part company at this point. Yeah, enjoy your corner view boys, I thought. It seemed like I’d secured E and I great tickets in comparison. But there was something I’d stupidly overlooked: unlike their corner tickets, our position on the halfway line entailed the very furthest walk around the stadium that was possible.

I made it nearly to the end of Wembley Way, but then we were diverted towards the blue zone, which entailed a walk of several 100 metres. I had my stick, but soon that wasn’t enough. E’s shoulder came into play on my other side, then another rest on the pavement. Another walk for five minutes, then another rest.

That I wasn’t going to make it began to be a real possibility. But there was still 45 minutes till kick off. I’d come this far. I’d crawl on my hands and knees if need be. My right foot began to drag. Without E’s support, a face plant was not out of the question. I stumbled on, very slowly, moving like a Thunderbird with a couple of strings cut.


And then we’d made it. Or so we thought. There was a gangway where we had to show our ticket, but this only took you to some steps up to the massive concrete concourse outside the stadium. I’m fast forwarding through the story though. First, I had to make it up around 20 steps just to get to that concourse. I may as well have been climbing the 107 steps the players have to climb in Wembley to be presented with a trophy.

I’d deserve a winners’ medal if I made it to the top. I clutched the handrail in my left hand while trying to persuade my right leg to make it up to the next step. The only way I could do this was by grabbing my jeans and physically pulling my leg up. I’d lost all feeling and strength in that limb. E looked round at me in disbelief. He’s never seen me this bad. No surprise there as I’d never seen myself this bad either.

By the time I’d made it to the top I was a mess. Ever seen those two female marathon runners at the end of the race where they’re trying desperately to make it over the line? That was me, and it looked like there was at least another 200 metres to go.

It was at that point that I made the decision: this would require the intervention of wheels. I sent E to talk to a WPC about getting transport for me. On speaking to the WPC, she duly went to find a steward while I sat down on the cold concrete.

The steward couldn’t have been nicer and, in another ten minutes, I found myself sitting for the very first time in a wheelchair. It felt like this particular chair had been waiting to pounce on me for a while, but I still wasn’t ready. I thought it was still a good few years off, yet here I was about to be ironsided into England’s national stadium.

However, prior to that, I experienced something else I was ill prepared for, but which most wheelchair users are probably used to. The steward stood behind me, about to transport me, and began talking to my son as if I wasn’t there. There was paperwork to be completed for my inaugural ride and apparently, he couldn’t come round the front and talk to the senior adult here. I thought of that episode of The Office where Brent pulls the disabled woman’s wheelchair back from the table without asking. That felt like it was going to be his next move.

Soon, however, we were ready for take-off and I was being pushed through the throng of fans heading to the turnstiles. We were taken to the accessibility lift, our tickets scanned by a mobile device. I tried to divert my thoughts from having my disability passport stamped with the brightest ink colour yet. Instead I gave in to the daydream that I was a VIP being smuggled into the ground, away from the flashes of the paparazzi.

In the lift, we shot up the five floors. As the doors opened again, a disabled man appeared who was very thankful he hadn’t had to attempt that climb by his own steam. But now another problem became apparent. We were in the bar area and the crowd was dense. How were we going to get through to my seat. The steward behind me seemed reluctant to raise his voice to ask for people to clear a path, so we muddled our way through via a combination of me tapping people on the side and the corners of the chair digging into ankles.

Of course, even the half cut and those with bruised ankle bones were very accommodating once they realised what was happening, but it still depressed the hell out of me for some reason. We had finally arrived, though. God, we were high up! My mind flashed to that scene when Leslie Nielson sends the wheelchair-bound OJ Simpson down the steps with a backslap in Naked Gun. I got out of the chair and thanked my helper before anything like that could happen to me.

Back using my old faithful mobility aid, my stick, I now just had to negotiate a few steps to get to my row in the stand. When I got to my row a relatively new way of helping my progress was utilised too. I’ve recently found that if I have to move along a row of seats at an event, I have to pre-warn the people standing up for me that I may have to lay a hand on them to steady myself as I shuffle past. Thankfully, the shoulders have so far always belonged to adult men. I wouldn’t feel quite so comfortable telling a woman or child I may have to touch them as I went by. Even more so with my lack of balance. A mishap would not be out of the question and suddenly I might find myself signing a register at my local police station once a month. Anyhow, so far at least, when people have seen my stick, they’ve been happy to be of assistance.

The view from my seat when I finally made it there. Told you it was high up.

So that was my journey from Wembley Park tube station to my seat. As

Neil Armstrong might have said in an alternative reality, ‘That was one small step for an able-bodied man, one giant leap for a man with a progressive disability’. The leap in this case was from a walking stick to a wheelchair. I’ve imagined that day many times, but it was still shocking when it happened. Hopefully, I won’t be seeing it again at least for a year or two.

As for the match, well, another failure by Leeds in the play-offs welcomed normality in once again. The disappointment at the final whistle and the strong desire to vacate the stadium as quickly as possible meant we didn’t bother trying to find a steward to get another ride in the lift. In a daze of discontent, we just headed down the stairs, all five flights.

Much easier to go down, of course, and my legs were feeling fairly strong again after their break. Like I said at the beginning of this account though, when will I learn? I didn’t think the descent had taken that much out of me, but back on the ground, the weakness soon took control again. The walk back to the station was as harrowing as the walk from it. We also got rained on this time, just in case we weren’t feeling miserable enough. Several pauses were required to make it back, plus the intervention of a steward, who allowed me a short cut through the crowd to the station.

The seat on the tube and then the car were only marginally less welcome than the site of Leeds scoring the winning goal in a play-off final (something that will forever be denied me, apparently). I rested my legs for 20 minutes, then I merely had a 276-mile drive to negotiate. But then what is a car but a glorified, motorised wheelchair. Bet you’ve never thought of a car like that before. In my head, thoughts of wheelchairs were suddenly everywhere.

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Wembley Woes

Ambushed by a wheelchair When will I learn? I’ve had a long time to get used to having MS – 22 years since the first symptoms – but I still ...