Matthew Law wrote the below report on his experience as a disabled fan at the KRC Genk v Chelsea match, played at the KRC Genk Cristal Arena.

The check-in closed at 6.50 on the morning of Tuesday 1st November 2011 for our train journey to Brussels. The second train from Woking to Waterloo left at 5.30 and arrived at Waterloo at 6.15. Leaving us then only 35 minutes to get off the train and catch a taxi to St Pancras before check-in closed. I considered this too much of a risk so decided to catch the first train of the day from Woking. This left at 4.10 which meant leaving my house at 3.30.

Perry, my PA for the day was round bang on time and there being no traffic on the roads at that time in the morning we arrived in plenty of time. There were two mild panic stricken moments before we got on the train though :

  • Woking Railway Station was all locked up
  • Once inside - the ticket machine didn’t recognise my card

However, the guard saw common sense when he saw us waiting outside; I had booked the assistance [man with a ramp] onto the train a few days ago, so he was expecting us and he probably unlocked the doors before the scheduled 4am because of that. The ticket machine didn’t recognise my card because I later found out I was using the wrong one! No-one checked my tickets anyway so we travelled without them. I also expected to have to use the lifts to get over to platform two but as South-West trains were expecting us, I think the train was diverted to platform five to save us the hassle. That being the case : well done South-West Trains. If it wasn’t – we were fortunate.

The ramp was duly laid out by the guard and before I was wheeled on to it, a bunch of about 10 male and female youths stumbled down it having obviously been out for a night on the tiles celebrating Halloween the night before. We got to Waterloo at 4.55 and there was a guard thankfully ready with the ramp, so we made a sharp exit to the taxi rank. There was a long queue of empty taxis just waiting to carry passengers. TX1 taxis do not have a built in ramp. So to save money (Taxi drivers always start their counter before they struggle getting the ramps out of their boot and laying them in the right place – hence it reads £2.60 before the wheels have rotated!) I looked for a TX2, TX3 or TX4. I found one and the driver pulled out the ramp. Perry pushed me up it and we left for St Pancras.

We arrived at 5.20 and so had an hour and a half free before check-in closed. We had a cup of coffee in one of the numerous cafes, used the toilets and bought and read a newspaper. We were given our boarding passes by the ThomasCook Sport (TCS) representatives and were soon through security and in the departure lounge waiting to board.

 TCS had arranged the whole trip. I paid the £189 directly to them. In fact, because I need someone with me I always pay double. I actually paid £387.45 (for two plus credit card fee). The Eurostar is absolutely superb if you happen to use a wheelchair for mobility. The wheelchair space is on the first class carriage. The ramp to get you on the train is in a ‘L’ shape and has 2 ramps and a centre platform (See below). There is a good disabled toilet on board and in the comfortable carriage there is also a fold-away seat you can transfer to if you prefer not to remain in your wheelchair. We were the only ones on the carriage but we still got our breakfast on the way and our lunch on the way back. The train moves so smoothly that the only way you know you’re moving is the sight of the land passing by the train out of the window.

 As on an aeroplane my wheelchair did not fit down the aisle of the train. The seats on the carriage all faced each-other, separated by a table. The chairs were in groups of four on one side of the aisle and in groups of two on the other. As I said before, there was a seat I could transfer to which had its own pull-out table. However Perry offered to carry me from my wheelchair to the first proper seat in the carriage (it helps to have a strong, young PA). This made the journey even more comfortable for me and I enjoyed reading the paper and eating the breakfast more than I would have otherwise.

The two hour journey flew by, what with the breakfast, reading the paper and engaging in conversation with Michelle from TCS who kept as company throughout. I was actually quite disappointed that we had arrived so soon, I could have stayed on board for the rest of the day - unlike an aeroplane where I can't wait to get off! It was still only 10.35 and even though I was then told I would be picked up at the hotel to be taken to the stadium an hour earlier than the normal coaches leave (our minibus had to divert to Genk railway station to pick up two other Chelsea supporting wheelchair users), we still had over 6 hours to explore Brussels.

Our hotel [The Ibis Brussels Gare du Midi] was directly outside the station. Our rooms were not available until 2 O'Clock so we were allocated a room in which we could leave our belongings. I used the disabled toilet in the hotel (no transfer rails) and then we ventured out into the City. Thankfully it was a mild, dry and sunny day and after a quick stop for refreshments we wandered the streets looking for somewhere interesting. Most of the shops on the street had large steps in front of the doorways so Perry skipped up into a few of them and found me a keyring, a fridge magnet and a postcard as souvenirs and presents.

We had been given a map of Brussels by Michelle as we left the hotel. After not really making much progress in the 'finding anything interesting' department we decided to consult it. We also asked some locals who all seemed to point in a similar direction. We eventually came to an intersection which had a signpost pointing in every direction. I had been in Brussels once before - six years ago - for Chelsea's match against Anderlect (won 2-0 with Crespo scoring at least one of the goals if I remember correctly) and the one sign name I did recognise was the one to 'Grand Place'. We followed that and soon came to the large square I remembered.

Grand Place (or Grote markt in Dutch) is the central square of Brussels. It is surrounded by guildhalls, Brussels town hall and the Breadhouse. The square is the most important tourist destination and most memorable landmark in Brussels. It measures 68 by 110 meters and it is a world heritage site. Brussels Grand Place was voted the most beautiful square in Europe in 2010 and it is easy to see why. There were many cafes round the outside of the square and we had a drink (Perry a Cherry beer and me a coke) on a raised wooden platform outside one of them. The wooden platform contained about a dozen tables full of other tourists also enjoying the ambiance, refreshments and sunshine.

It was now 3.15 and so we decided to start heading back to the hotel. We checked-in and were able to relax a little before meeting the driver of our WAV (wheelchair accessible vehicle) at 5 O'Clock in the foyer. He took over PA duties from the foyet by pushing me onto the lift alongside the stairs to the foyer level. This lift moved at a frustratingly slow pace (Perry could have been half way down the street if he hadn't waited) but the driver got me to the van and onto its' lift. The WAV was effectively a converted mini-bus [see below]. All but two of the rear seats had been removed and replaced with tracks to enable my wheelchair to be locked down to the floor. The driver duly locked my chair in and also secured a belt round me. I always wear a belt to stop me fallig out my chair accidentally anyway so suffice to say, I was going nowhere!

So we've established that I felt very secure. However I was by this point extremely tired. I had managed only about two hours sleep in the last 33 hours so perhaps that was understandable. I was desperate to get my head down to catch up on some sleep but sitting bolt upright in a wheelchair and being belted in - it is just not possible. The overall journey to the stadium, including our stop at Genk railway station took 2 hours (the same time as it had taken to get from London to Brussels on Eurostar). However, we still had plenty of time 'till the 8.45 kick off. Rain had started falling on the journey so the first thing to do once out the WAV was to put on some water-proof trousers. Then we headed off to one of the many hamburger stalls.
The access into the stadium was via a large metal gate. I did not show my ticket to anyone although I don't remember seeing a debit on the credit card I applied with so maybe they assumed I didn't have one. Nonetheless the security guard just held up three fingers, looked at us three wheelchair users, smiled and unlocked a second metal gate. We progressed from the corner of the stadium, along by the side of the pitch, up a ramp and to our position in the middle of one of the two halves of the pitch. The view was only slightly obscured by a glass panel but I suppose if your view has to be obscured then glass is acceptable. You can see our position in the stadium above. We were joined by a fourth wheelchair using Chelsea fan as kick-off approached so there were three more than there had been in Zilina last year and in Valencia five weeks ago! The Cristal Arena has a capacity of 25,000 of which 4,200 are standing places. It was built in 1999.

A goal from Ramires after half an hour should have seen Chelsea on their way to a straightforward victory but David Luiz missed a penalty towards the end of the first half and the second half did not go to plan as Genk equalised and secured an unlikely draw.

The rain lashed down in bursts throughout the game but the roof covered us well. My waterproof trousers ended up protecting my ordinary trousers more from the ketchup in the hamburger than the rain from the sky.

The exit from the stadium was very quick and hassle free. The driver (who had watched the match with us) managed to park the WAV right outside the gate. The WAV only had to take me and Perry back as the other two were on the daytrip so were going back on the coaches. I think they were due in at Stamford Bridge at about 7.30 in the morning!

Being on my own in the back meant that this time I could transfer to a seat in the mini-bus rather than stay in my wheelchair. There were suitably placed rails to make the transfer simple and the driver secured the seatbelt. The driver locked my chair to the floor of the WAV in the same way as he would have if I'd have been in it, to stop it rolling about during the journey. I felt perfectly safe and very comfortable and was probably fast asleep within five minutes.

With no drop off at the station and little traffic on the road our journey back took half the time and we were back at the hotel by midnight. We were given a disabled room in the hotel but other than being on one level and having wide doors it was not too friendly for me although in truth I didn't really expect it to be. There were no rails by the toilet or the bed to help me transfer to either. I am not used to being totally dependant other than being pushed long distances but my choice is a simple one: I either become dependant for a few days or I don't go at all. I carry round a pot to solve my toileting needs and Perry was obviously on hand to lift me from my wheelchair to the bed. The beds were not too comfortable with pillows that took up barely half the width of the bed but I could have slept on a clothes line, I was that tired.

We were up at 8.15 on the Wednesday and down for breakfast an hour later. There were four large metal heated trays. Two contained baked beans and sausages and the other two (which should have contained scrambled egg and bacon) were empty. We had to go and ask for these trays to be refilled and put the sausages and beans on our plate in readiness. We waited and waited and eventually the egg and bacon turned up. By this time the beans and sausages had got cold so I just had the egg and the bacon and filled up with cereal.

We went back to the room, packed up and checked out in the foyer. It was 10.30 and our Eurostar train wasn't due to leave until 1.30. We decided to hang around in the foyer chatting to the other supporters who were all in a similar predicament. Conversation centred around Chelsea FC's proposal to buy the freehold of Stamford Bridge from the CPO which got 61% of the required 75% of the vote. Many supporters on the trip seemed to own shares including me.

We all left the hotel shortly after midday and walked across the road to the station. I poked my head in the disabled toilet in the station expecting there to be no transfer rails but to my surprise there was one so I could sit on a toilet seat for the first time on this trip since leaving London. Then simply Eurostar to St Pancras, taxi to Waterloo, train to Woking and Renault Kangoo back to my house. We got in at 5.45.