Finding an oasis of calm somewhere populated by thousands of people might seem an impossible task.
That was the challenge facing Catherine Burrell and her family, boys Tom and Harry and husband Chris when they prepared for a game at the Riverside.
Mum Catherine takes up the story.
“Back in the summer we attempted to go as a family to watch a game at the Riverside. However, this meant explaining to the boys that they had to stay in their seats for a ‘very long time’, watching a bunch of grown men running and kicking a ball around a field, unable to join in. Also trying to ensure their bums remained on seats for the majority of the time with the exception of people jumping up and down for goals, red and yellow cards and of course half time.
“By the time the half time whistle blew we had been up and down to the toilet about four times. As people took their seats for the second half, our family of four was two down; a fraught mummy and son suffered a slow, long and tiring walk back to the car.
“I am a firm believer in trying something twice. Especially if the first time was not quite as you expected it to be.”
And this is where our Sensory Room and GRFZ staff enter the story.
“We had chance to go to a game in the Family Zone, with use of the Matchday Sensory Room - the family had another chance,” Catherine continues.
“We agreed to keep it as a, ‘We have a surprise planned for this Saturday!’ Something we generally try to steer away from. Past experience told us ‘surprises’ evoke a mixed bag of emotions. However, to my own surprise, the unveiling on Saturday morning went down pretty well!
“Being able to arrive at the ground early to beat the masses was perfect to alleviate any initial anxieties and provide a chance to familiarise children to the environment. It is easy to forget how manic and overwhelming match days can sometimes become. Crowds of people that you often, literally, get swept away with. Lost amidst the fast pace walking to the ground. Then there is all the different sounds and smells to take in – complete sensory overload!
“We were welcomed by two members of club staff, our hosts for the afternoon and taken up to the Matchday Sensory Room. Once we had a family photograph taken, the children were given a tour of the stadium, a chance to meet the friendly Boro Mascot, Rory the Lion. There was even chance to take a look in wardrobe in the family enclosure and try on some of the fancy dress costumes, Batman, Buzz Light Year and Disney Princesses!
“It was rather surreal being able to access an empty football stadium on a dark cold January afternoon, soon to be filled with people coming to support the teams. Walking on the Astroturf grass that acted as a border around the pitch, looking up at the stands and pointing out the seats that spelt out the letters MFC and the big screens. Stepping over the cables of the television cameras that would soon be televising the match, it was easy to lose your bearings.
“The seats around the stadium were now starting to fill up with supporters, footballers were warming up on the pitch, doing star jumps and relays and what started out as a dark dusky stadium was now streaming with floodlights, lighting up the pitch.
“There was only one thing left; to take our seats and cheer on the Mighty Reds whilst enjoying the chicken nuggets and chips. The staff continued to be available throughout the match supporting us all to ensure we got to our seats and help us access the Sensory Room at any point required throughout the afternoon, when both children and parents needed to recharge their batteries before heading back out to cheer on the Boro.
“As the final whistle blew, we all returned back to the Matchday Sensory Room. In from the cold, a final chance to get warm and take some time out from all the noise and excitement on the pitch and in the stands. Relax with the bubble lamp, catch up with the football scores or even have a snooze on the beanbags.
“I know that our boys had fun. A sincere thank you to the team at the Riverside who worked extremely hard with all the families, making everyone feel at ease, you most definitely received a 5* rating from our family from start to finish!”