After taking a bit of inspiration from reading this http://toffeeweb.com/season/14-15/comment/fan/28564.html I thought I'd write part 2 or part deux. So here goes, apologies for the length of this, but there was a lot to get in!!
Ever since the draw was made for this season's Europa League, Lille was always going be one that I was going to go too. I knew getting a ticket wouldn't be a problem as I had all the required credits and travelling there wouldn't be too much of an issue as I knew the Eurostar went straight into Lille. So I put the plans into place for my friend and I to be able to go - booked the train tickets, arranged for assistance for the trains and found a hotel with a wheelchair accessible room. Further research carried out later on meant we knew the most wheelchair friendly way of travelling from the city to the ground and back again. We were good to go and very much looking forward to this trip.
We arrived in Lille around 3.40pm on Thursday after a relatively straight forward journey. we checked into our hotel, put the bags into the room and decided to venture in to town to soak up the pre match atmosphere. I'd received phone calls and texts from family and friends warning me not go to the square as there had been an incident involving tear gas being used on our supporters, we decided that we wouldn't be put off by this and would go there as that is where our friends would be. As we got near to the square we could hear choruses of Allez, Allez, Allez Oh and many other Everton songs from outside a bar. These fans were in great spirits, singing and having a good time. The locals seemed in awe of the numbers outside this one bar and were taking photographs and enjoying watching the scenes. We stayed there and joined in with the fun for a short time before setting off to the square. As we got to there, we could see all the flags and although the numbers of fans were dispersing in order to go to the stadium, there was still a decent number gathered there and the atmosphere was friendly and happy. Lots of songs were being sung and the fans were enjoying themselves. I am glad we went there. You couldn't help but sing along with our songs and it was a really enjoyable place to be. But because we didn't know how long it would take to get to the stadium we decided to leave just before 5pm to make our way to the ground.
This is when our jovial mood started to wear off quickly and be replaced by frustration, panic and annoyance. On our arrival at the Gare Lille Le Flandres, we couldn't find the disabled access to the Metro, we asked the police who were on duty there and they simply shrugged their shoulders and said "don't know" when asked if they could tell us where the lifts where. Eventually we found someone who pointed us to the lift and we got to the Metro station, which was extremely busy not only with match going fans of both clubs but rush hour commuters. It was literally heaving. The queue for the stairs to the platform for the Metro was like something I have never seen before, it was a bottleneck, how serious injury wasn't sustained by people there, I am not sure. We managed to get into single small lift somehow and joined what felt hundreds of other people on an extremely overcrowded platform. More and more people were joining the platform quicker than people were leaving it onto the metro trains. I positioned myself in my wheelchair to the right hand side which was the side of entry on to the metro and my carer had to stand to the side of me to stop anyone pushing into me and knocking me. Due to my disability, I am only little so my chair isn't that noticeable and I can also sustain injuries by being knocked into, I will openly admit I was scared being down on that platform and I know my friend felt similar, it felt like we could be crushed or have people fall on me at any minute. It was also ridiculously warm as well and at times I felt quite faint. From what I could tell there was no crowd control in place from station staff or police. As we eventually got near to where we were in a position to get on to the Metro, two policemen were notified by a couple of very helpful people in the queue that a wheelchair user was there and trying to board the next metro. They tried to hold back the crowd to allow us to board but couldn't so we had to wait for the next Metro. Thankfully we got on this train, much to our relief. There was no disabled space on the Metro despite there being a sign saying there was, to be honest I didn't care, I was just glad to be off that platform. The Metro train was packed but it didn't feel anywhere near as bad being on that unlike that platform.
Leaving the station there was a heavy police presence, which was more than little intimidating as we made our way to the stadium. We got to the stadium with about half an hour to go before kick off. My tickets were for the away end and according to the ticket our entrance was I02, but from we could not see where that was. Thankfully my friend saw some of the Everton stewards who were working at the entrances, one of them came with us to take us to an entrance, which was the same entrance as a lot of our supporters were using. There appeared to be no separate disabled entrance at all. Something I have never known in over 15 years of going to away matches. To get to this entrance, we had to fight our way through a huge mass of Evertonians who were also attempting to gain entry. With the help of the Everton steward and the Evertonians in this so called queue we managed to work our way through to the front. Without the assistance of the Everton steward and the understanding of our fans, I really don't think we would have got to the front of this mass of fans so quickly & safely. From what I could tell, there were no Lille stewards around these entrances to help with crowd control etc. Poor organisation yet again from the home club.
Once at the entrance, it was obvious why so many fans were massed outside, the body checks! Delays into the ground was inevitable with these. I was searched by a steward; she searched me, my bag, my jacket and my wheelchair. Once passed this, I moved forward about two yards, I encountered the same checks yet again but this time by a police woman, who was nothing if not thorough! I have never encountered checks like that at football ground ever, in fact I don't think I have ever been checked at a ground before, my bag, yes, but not me or my chair. If I have it wasn't to that extent. I don't think the security checks in airports have ever been that thorough with me. All of my female friends felt the same about the body checks. On this second check my phone charger was confiscated from me. The policewoman tried to explain to me what was happening, but she didn't speak any English. Eventually a colleague told me I wouldn't be allowed to enter the ground with the charger and I could collect it after the game (which I did). I don't see what problem there was with the phone charger, I have taken it into many grounds previously.
Once we were allowed to go to our seats, I encountered another problem. My seat didn't exist! The numbers on the disabled bays jumped from 24 up to 36, my ticket was for bay 28! Reg, the EDSA steward told me to sit in a space that was empty for now. So we did and that is when I realised I had a major problem, I would not be able to see the pitch! The wheelchair bays were located at the back of the lower tier, the seats in front of us weren't even full at this point and I just knew that once they were I wouldn't see the pitch and this would be without the fans standing up. I have been to enough games to know what views will be like before games have started and it was obvious that this was going to be problematic. The wheelchair bays were like the ones at the Emirates, Wembley, the Etihad and the Britannia to name just a few in this country, but unlike these grounds, they were not elevated, so the disabled supporters sitting here were never going to have a clear view of the pitch. I was extremely disappointed and angered that for such a brand new ground, so little consideration had gone into the disabled viewing area.
After returning from the toilet (no signs to direct me to the disabled toilets or any Lille stewards to ask), the space I was sitting in had been taken by the disabled supporter who was meant to be there. So we had to find another one. Most were taken up by other wheelchair users, but there were a couple empty on the far side (last block of Everton supporters) but again the problem of seeing the pitch existed. To stand any chance of seeing the game I ended up sitting alongside another wheelchair user at the top of the steps right by the metal separation fence between the home and away fans, which felt like we were in a cage. My friend had no seat as the other supporters had been told on their entrance they could seat anywhere if they couldn't find their seats so she stood behind me for the whole game. We had a bit of a view of the goal Tim Howard was defending in the first half, but an obscured one of the far end goal any play we had down the right side, I couldn't see. In the second half, I hardly saw any Lille attacks as their fans that were to my immediate right stood whilst the attack was ongoing. I was literally waiting for their fans to start celebrating as that would have been the only way I would have know they'd have scored.
Within 5 minutes of kick off two other wheelchair users came and joined us at the top of the steps as they couldn't see from their designated wheelchair bays. We had to keep moving back and forth to allow our fans up and down the steps. At no point did any Lille stewards or police come over to us to tell us to move as we were clearly blocking the steps. We would never have been allowed to stay there at any ground in the UK. We asked the steward on the other side of separation fence if we could move into the Lille end as we thought we may have seen the pitch much clearer from there, but were told in no uncertain terms NO. At half time I moved to one of the wheelchair bays just to see what it was like and even with the fans seated I could just about make out the goal in front of us. There was no way I could stay there to watch the game. So I had to return to the top of the steps for the second half.
As the end of the game approached we saw a line of dozen or so armed police behind us and were told by one of our stewards, we'd be kept behind after the game. Thankfully the Everton stewards had arranged with the police to allow the wheelchairs to be allowed through this cordon and on to the concourse. I was so relieved that the stewards had sorted this. As soon as the whistle went, the stewards took the wheelchair users and their carers through the armed police cordon and we waited out of the way of the crowd of Evertonians who had made their way to the top of the steps. We also were allowed to leave the ground after about 10 minutes, before the rest of the Everton fans. We were most grateful for this as it meant we could get on a Metro with nowhere near as much stress and panic as on our journey to the stadium and got back to our hotel safely around 10pm when I discovered my final problem of the trip, the wheelchair accessible room didn't live up to its name. But that is story for another time!
I must admit that I didn't enjoy any part of being in the ground or getting to and from it. I have been going to Goodison since 1993 and away games since 1999 have never seen so little organisation ever at a match. If it wasn't for the Everton stewards, I don't think we would have gotten in or out the ground as safely as we did. The policing at the ground was far too extreme and I can understand why this caused a lot of fans to get in after kick off. Due to the poor viewing area I didn't enjoy the game, just because I couldn't see it, nothing to do with how we played! This whole experience ruined what had been a trip my friend and I had been looking forward to for weeks. I was hoping to go to Euro 2016, but the experience in and around the stadium and in getting to it have really put me off this now.
Email Bluekipper at firstname.lastname@example.org