Rivalries were put to one side in April 2018 when representatives from six clubs across the West Midlands and North Wales teamed up after meeting at an EFL forum for fan organisations.

Their aim was clear: share ideas and advice on how to improve the match day experience for disabled supporters.

“You get more done in numbers,” says Birmingham City fan Steve Portman, who chairs Allies in Access.

As well as the Blues, the group is also made up of fans from Aston Villa, Walsall, West Brom, Wolves and Wrexham.

They meet in person every three months and regularly communicate online.

“What we want to try and build is that access point for fans, rather than getting sent to an SLO who you may not know. It’s like a family,” Steve says.

“When they know who you are you can speak to them on a personal level.”

That personal touch is often the difference between a good experience and a bad one, as Steve explains.

“We've found a lot of disabled people are more likely to be open with us than they might be with the club.

“There's a lot of anxiety among disabled supporters and they need someone who will not only listen, but also speak up for them.”

Allies in Access also work closely with the West Midlands Police Football Unit, who help initiate contact with safety teams at different clubs. The force has even improved its own ways of working by taking advice from the group.

“Due to disability being so diverse and different illnesses and conditions affecting people in different ways, being able to communicate with the relevant people at opposing clubs is massive.

“There could be things that have been overlooked or things that need doing differently.”

Steve counts the improvements in the match day experience at local rivals Aston Villa among his proudest achievements since being involved with the group.

“It’s one of the worst places to go as a Blues fan. But we worked with Villa to make it a lot safer for disabled fans and they used the idea with other clubs.”

Due to a lack of facilities, disabled away fans have to sit in the home end at Villa Park, which can cause problems.

“We requested our own stewards in the home end and a couple of police officers. Even in the family stand in a wheelchair you still get a lot of abuse – I know people who have been spat on.”

Safe spaces were also provided in the away end for those supporters with less visible disabilities if they wanted to take some time out.

“To get that as nice as it was the last time we went there, that was brilliant. As two local rival clubs, to be able to sit together, sing and enjoy the game rather than worrying about what’s going to get thrown at us next, it was brilliant.”

The group have shared this example of best practice with other clubs around the country to help improve the match-going experience for other disabled fans.

And Steve has his eye on growing their influence even more in the future.

“We want to be in different areas of the country,” he says.

Their work so far hasn’t gone unnoticed. They are nominated for the Free Kick Award at next week’s event, which recognises individuals, groups or projects working to help make football more diverse and inclusive.

“It’s brilliant to be nominated. It shows that the work is worth it,” says Steve.

“If people feel we’re worthy, it shows that people appreciate the work that’s done and it’s the right direction to go in.”

Words: Steve Jones