How Bohs are putting spectator sportsmanship at the heart of football.
Whether you’re a steadfast soccer fan, or a curious ambler sticking your nose around the gates of Dalymount Park on a Phibsborough-wide pubcrawl, a home game for Bohemian’s FC is a feast for the senses: chatter from eager volunteers, colourful jerseys with inclusive slogans, the rattle of the chip van as racing kids waft tempting scents up and down the stands, all to the backing track of upbeat fan-favourite tunes. On a good day, this bubbling undercurrent of energy comes to a head when Bohs score and a tailored rendition of the Spandau Ballet classic Gold blares out through the homeside speakers: “Bohs / Always believe in your soul / You’ve got the power to know / You’re indestructible / Always believe it.”
The first time this chorus rings out on August 4th, during a League of Ireland Premier Division game between Bohs and Drogheda United, Bohs fan Declan Meenagh in the seat beside me hoists his guide cane in the air, joining his own two fists in a sea of hands waving in time to the music. Unlike many locals hollering through the evening breeze, this Cabra-native wasn’t always a Dalymount regular. Born with 5% sight, Meenagh felt as though football “wasn’t really for him…I suppose football was always something I struggled to follow because when you can’t see what’s going on, it’s very hard to stay interested in it.” Despite early efforts to play and enjoy the game in school, he says he “didn’t do too well.” Aside from this, he adds, ”I’m not the typical football fan, I’m a bit of a nerd, it has to be said.”
True to form, it wasn’t solely football that drew Meenagh to become a member of the club just over three years ago. It was Bohs inclusive, community-driven initiatives that first caught his attention. Sporting the Bohs ‘Refugees are Welcome’ jersey, he references the club’s pride committee and their jersey in support of Palestine, among a range of other efforts that have gained momentum within the club over the past number of years.
“You’re trying to be really descriptive about the styles of passes. You don’t just say a pass is a pass.”
The clinching factor for Meenagh was the advent of audio-described commentary at games, which began in 2019 and is now run by a dedicated team of five volunteers. Though a handful of other clubs have also introduced audio-described commentary, Bohs were the first to offer it to their fans. Established by the then Disability Access Officer for the club, James Flanagan, this service allows fans to collect headphones from designated volunteers before the game, through which they will be fed tailored as-it-happens updates of the game in play, allowing them to sit and enjoy the game from anywhere in the stadium – meaning they never miss a beat, on or off the pitch.
For Irvine Ferris, current Disability Access Office with the club, the key to delivering this commentary is descriptive language, ensuring listeners know where the ball is all times. “So we’ll divide the pitch up into thirds so there’s the attacking third, middle third and defensive third, and we map the ball around the pitch nearside and farside, so at all times, our listeners should know where the ball is on the pitch.” This emphasis on accuracy over analysis separates audio description from other forms of sports commentary, he explains. “You’re trying to be really descriptive about the styles of passes. You don’t just say a pass is a pass. We want to convey that the winger has used the outside of his right foot to chip it over the top of the fence, so we try to be really descriptive in the language that we use.”
In terms of access, Ferris points out that the grounds itself is quite old and “in need of redevelopment badly” but the audio descriptive service is one he’s really proud of. And the results are clear. When I met Meenagh before the game and asked him about his Dalymount highlights he responded, “You know what, any time Bohs score a goal in Dalymount is just a great experience, you know…you’ll be hearing that tonight.”
“It’s great that I can sit here, I can get the atmosphere and I can also follow what’s going on.”
For Eamon Gallagher, who also avails of the commentary, the latter has become a sports spectator’s secret weapon. When, at half-time, his mates are sitting around rehashing the facts of the game, asking, “Who scored that goal?” or “Is someone after getting sent off?” he becomes the person to turn to, given he has “all the finer details I get in my ear,” he explains. Gallagher says that it’s gotten to the point where sometimes other people sitting in the stand will ask him questions or say ‘Ask him what happened there’ to others, when they want to iron out a few of their own confusions.
“I think it was last week’s game, Danny Grant got taken down for a peno and everyone was like, ‘What was that peno for?’ and I was like, ‘Danny Grant got pulled down’ and they were like ‘Aw grand yeah, I didn’t see it.’” Without missing a beat, he quips, “Well I didn’t see it but I‘m being told what’s happening.”
Gallagher became a Bohs fan around the age of 18 when he started coming to matches with friends, having played the game himself on and off. When family life took over, Bohs fell by the wayside and then, when Gallagher lost his sight eight years ago, he didn’t imagine that he’d ever return to the game. When Flanagan, who Gallagher had come to know through the NCBI first broached the idea of a night back to Dalymount, his reaction was always, “Ah no, wouldn’t be for me.” But when Flanagan proposed audio description, Gallagher agreed to give it a shot. “I went to the first [audio-described] game and that was 2019 and I’d say I’ve only missed about two or three games since then so coming back every week, bought season tickets and all for it.”
Gallagher is basking in the joy of being back in the game. “It’s very good what the lads do. I think they’ve all been getting better and better as the time’s gone on.”
“[With] them telling me what’s going on, I can picture it exactly in my head what’s going on.. everything, down to the finer details like what positions they’re on on the pitch and stuff like that.”
Although, this is only half the fun. The camaraderie between the fans creating and the fans consuming the audio described commentary boosts everyone’s communal enjoyment of the game. “There’s been a few games like that where, let’s say, Bohs have been losing and you’re sitting there and you can hear it in their voice how disappointed they are with what’s going on,” Gallagher recalls. “And I’m sitting there feeling what they’re feeling going, ‘Yeah, this is pretty shit at the moment’ but when Bohs score and get back into the game and the crowd get going and then their voice perks up a little bit, you’re like, yeah! I can feel it myself then – just by their reactions alone.”
Of the volunteers, he says “they’re fans as well so you sort of know how they’re feeling to what’s going on in the game and it all makes sense to me then and I get a little buzz out of that as well.”
The magic works both ways, it seems, from speaking to Ferris and fellow volunteer, 15-year-old Glen Anderson. “I’ve probably seen more Bohs goals with Glen than I have with anyone else in the last year,” Ferris says, turning to smirk at Anderson, who was set to commentate on the game that day. “It’s a really good way of building up friendships.” Despite having to maintain a degree of professionalism while commentating to listeners from the press box, the pair agree that, “You can still go mad to a certain degree…Just being able to celebrate particularly during Covid where times were really tough,” Ferris adds, “That’s definitely my highlight.”
Anderson got involved with the commentary over a year and a half ago when his brother’s friend lost his sight and began using the commentary, and since then, Anderson hasn’t looked back. The pair agree that “win, lose or draw,” those who avail of the commentary “are really grateful, so it’s good.”
Local woman Barbara O’Leary also found a second wind of football fandom, thanks to the audio descriptive service. As a life-long local to the area, she has “always followed Bohs in one way or other.” But when her sight began to disimprove, games 40 years previously, where she would have jumped up and down with excitement in the stands, began to feel even further away.
Spurred on by the joy the game sparks in her son Richard, she decided to give audio-described commentary a shot, and much to her surprise, she found herself becoming really engaged in the games. “You feel you’re part of it, like you know what’s going on.”
“Even if there’s something else going on in the stadium, they’d kinda say to you, ˜You know, there’s a flare going off here’… so just from that point of view, you just know what’s happening around you…it’s absolutely brilliant.”
There’s just one downfall of her fandom nowadays, she notes jokingly: “I don’t jump up and down anymore!” Though, when you spot O’Leary headphones-on seated comfortably beside Richard who is beaming, proudly sporting a Des Kelly in red and black, it’s clear that jumping about to Spandau Ballet is no longer what the game is about for her.
“You feel you’re part of it, like you know what’s going on.”
Alongside audio description, Bohs have a wide range of ongoing services and opportunities to improve access and inclusion at the club. Ferris tells me about a football team for under 18s with disabilities who train every Saturday in Cabra, one of whom has just been called up to the Irish Futsal squad. There is also a blind football team and team for amputees.
Never resting on their laurels, the volunteers at Bohs are always looking for ways to push things forward. This season, this included trailing ‘Field of Vision’ software for their blind and visually impaired fans. “It’s like a little tablet,” Ferris explains. “You put your finger on the tablet and it guides your finger to where the ball is on the pitch.”
Gallagher, ever the pioneer, was one of the first Bohs fans to trial the software the previous week, in tandem with commentary. “Field of Vision was great,” he shared. “When there was a long pass or say a player went on a run and he ran half the length of the pitch…You could feel the ball moving up that length of the pitch and then the excitement of a commentary saying, ’He has the ball, he’s running here’… so it really sort of brought the game to life between feeling where the ball was on the tablet and listening to the lads at the same time.”
With more to come from Field of Vision, it’s an exciting time for access at Bohs – as is any night the home team play at Dalymount, it seems. As a home goal is suddenly disallowed in the first half, a hum of confused murmuring rises from the crowd. I look over to see Meenagh listening intently to his headphones, as the swell of discontentment around him grows louder and louder. A young lad in a Bohs jersey in the row behind us rises to his feet clutching a tin tray of cold chips to holler, “It’s the ref’s fault! He blocked the pass!” over our heads. This is followed by a short pause and a less certain, “Doesn’t know what he’s doing!” before he resumes his seat. Meenagh tilts his head in my direction with a knowing smile on his face and remarks quietly, “Haven’t heard that one yet!” gesturing to his headphones. We laugh.
Bohemians remaining home fixtures for the season are:
Shelbourne (Monday September 25)
Sligo Rovers (Friday September 29)
St Patrick’s Athletic (Friday October 20)
Cork City (Friday November 3).
All games kick off at 7.45pm. The Women’s team will play Wexford Youths at 3pm on Saturday October 7 and Treaty United at 6pm on Saturday November 11.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Joe Carr (1934-2023), godfather to the editor of this publication and a huge fan and integral part of the spirit of volunteerism with Bohemians over the years. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.