SoccerSight project illuminating the lives of blind and visually impaired football fans

Taking in the action at a football match is something most spectators take for granted, but blind and visually impaired fans rely on the skills of others to paint a perfect pitch-side picture. Blind football fan Heather Gillespie tells Gail Bell how SoccerSight has kept the light burning brightly on the sport she loves

Avid footie fan Heather Gillespie, seen here with Ken Duncan of SoccerSight, lost her sight virtually overnight at age 13
Avid footie fan Heather Gillespie, seen here with Ken Duncan of SoccerSight, lost her sight virtually overnight at age 13

THERE are many wonderful, wistful moments that devoted football fan Heather Gillespie can recall from trips to Windsor Park but, along with the goals and nerve-racking near-misses (not to mention a recent, disputed penalty) one of her outstanding memories is of a dazzling sunset spilling over the dusky grounds.

She talks descriptively, poetically even, of the hues: the oranges and reds, the purples – "every shade and nuance" of the sun going down at the Belfast football stadium, probably her favourite place in the world; the home of her beloved 'Green and White Army'.

But the Antrim woman's excitement at matches, not to mention the spontaneous joy of an unexpected sunset, is all the more poignant because Heather is blind and only able to 'see' the players, the ball, the pitch – and sky – thanks to a little-known programme called SoccerSight run by the Irish Football Association (IFA) in partnership with the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB).

It was first introduced to Belfast in March 2007 for the Northern Ireland game against Sweden and has been shining a light into the lives of blind and visually impaired fans ever since, allowing them to fully experience the atmosphere and vicariously follow the action through detailed audio commentary from a small, dedicated band of skilled volunteers.

As excitement mounted ahead of Northern Ireland's first leg of the World Cup play-off against Switzerland last Thursday – when all four SoccerSight commentators were on duty simultaneously – it was clear that verbal and observational skills, condition of head-sets, the all-important ticket allocation, transport arrangements and availability of sighted travelling companions all had to be meticulously worked out weeks in advance.

It was also clear that Heather would move every goalpost to be in that crowd and be part of the emotional surge of vibrant, noisy, enthusiastic support.

Now, as the project aims to expand and organisers are looking at new streams of funding so facilities can be rolled out at Irish League games in the future, Heather speaks for the 15-strong group of SoccerSight users when she describes the service as a joyous, radiant link back to the sport she has loved since childhood.

Having lost her sight traumatically and virtually overnight at the age of 13 due to Retinopathy of Prematurity, the 62 year-old – who also uses a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, another consequence of her premature birth – is full of praise for the running commentary which seamlessly fills every dark space with intense, moving colour.

"They will describe everything on the pitch; where the manager is standing and if he is making gestures to a player, the colour of the kit, all the little details that help create a perfect scene in my head," she says.

"Once, when there was a lull in play, the commentators described the antics of a seagull overhead which had us laughing. And there was once a beautiful sunset and I could just see it, like it was right there in front of me."

Occasionally, though, the excitement gets too much for even the steady SoccerSight volunteers, as Heather explains: "I never have to guess at what is happening or imagine what something looks like – although, on the night we qualified for the Euros last year, the guys were beside themselves and sort of forgot to see things through our eyes.

"They were going, 'Oh, my goodness, Oh, my goodness' and I had to shout, 'Did we score? Who scored? It was a mad few minutes and we had a lot of banter about that afterwards.

"No-one understands, though, just how much SoccerSight means to me; without it, I would be sitting at home and unable to come out to matches and feel part of it all like I did when I was a child. I get hoarse with all the screaming and singing.

"I can still see what the pitches look like in my mind's eye and I clearly remember watching Manchester United on television as a child. No-one could touch the brilliant George Best – the way he moved that ball was amazing. He was, and still is, my number one player."

It was actually the George Best Foundation that helped kick-start the SoccerSight programme in Belfast after one of its co-founders, football coach Ken Duncan – regional grassroots development officer for the IFA in the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council area – approached the charity for help.

"Luckily, George Best's sister, who set up the foundation, thought SoccerSight was a great initiative and gave us money to buy headsets to help get us started," he says.

With a long career in the music industry – he still composes – it also helped that Ken also had a working knowledge of transmitters, mixers and the veritable "mobile radio station" which would be required to put the SoccerSight show on the road.

Seeing the transformative impact of the project at first-hand, he is keen to train up more commentators as well as developing a new 'Buddy-up' scheme for users and 'meet and greet' sessions and interviews with past and current players.

Listening intently to this, Heather's face immediately lights up and she quickly gives Ken a list of her top choices – chief among them Pat Jennings, another football hero from her youth.

Ken gladly makes a mental note and, most probably, it will happen. He has already arranged a presentation of flowers at a special pitch-side ceremony for Heather's birthday (unfortunately, a stray ball landed in the middle of the bouquet) and is keen to bring more dreams alive for SoccerSight users.

"What I have found," he says, "is that this project is so much more than a means for visually impaired football fans to enjoy their sport in a live environment; it is also a vital social outlet which is inadvertently tackling isolation and loneliness as well."

Not that the passionate, irrepressible Heather Gillespie would ever allow herself to fall into bouts of self-pity. Apart from her football, she volunteers with the RNIB charity, attends keep-fit classes, takes boccia lessons (a game related to bowling), cooks, reads (Braille) and is committed to her church, Antrim Elim.

A knowledgeable history buff and enthusiastic member of the Richard III Society, she travelled to Leicester for the reburial of that English king in March, 2015,because she felt history dealt him a "raw deal" and she "likes to fight for the underdog".

Despite her own situation, she loves helping people – "I love making other people's lives a bit easier, if I can" – and, in defiance of her disabilities and losing an identical twin sister at birth, her philosophy is to resolutely just get on with things.

"I think I must have been a wee fighter," she says, "but God has been good to me. I have a great family, including five sisters and a brother – and friends who help and support me, and my brilliant neighbour, Cathy [Robinson] who helps me get about.

"The only thing is, Cathy doesn't like football and won't go to matches, but my two brothers-in-law love the 'beautiful game' almost as much as me. Even the one who lives in England says there's something special about Northern Ireland matches. I think my enthusiasm must have rubbed off..."