“It knocked me out for 71 days in total,” says Steve Jarvis, retracing the chain of events that left him blind and in a coma after a motorcycle accident in November 1984. A smattering of silence follows but then his overwhelming zest for life, gratitude and uplifting positivity become clear. While he was in Poole hospital, his then girlfriend, now wife, Jane, sent a letter and tape to the then Southampton manager, Lawrie McMenenemy, who duly recorded a message.
“It might well have been the reason I came around. Thanks, Lawrie!” Steve says, laughing. “He just said: ‘When you’re back up and well, come and see us.’ That’s what I did; I went and met all the players back in ’85. I’ve still got the tape; it will always be in my possession. I’ll always keep it.”
That is an extraordinary story but the precious bond between Steve and his son, Dan, season-ticket holders in the Northam End at St Mary’s, is also extremely heart-warming. Dan has acted as his dad’s visual guide since the age of six, when the pair, who live in Chilmark, near Salisbury, attended their first Southampton game together against Aston Villa in 1997.
They navigated the Cardiff crowds at the FA Cup final a few years later, have travelled across Europe following Saints in red and white stripes since and, by the end of this year, they hope to have ticked off 92 English league grounds. Dan is on 86, Steve on 84, with Accrington, Fleetwood and Grimsby among those on the to-do list.
The accident left Steve blind, though he recovered around 20% of sight in his left eye after a bruised optic nerve healed. The incident occurred when Steve, then a 22-year-old trainee estimator for a plumbing and heating firm, collided with a pushbike on his way to work at traffic lights in West Moors, a Dorset village on the outskirts of Bournemouth. His first game back in the stands was against Liverpool six months later.
“I was just pleased to be there,” he says. “I wasn’t sure what was going on but the fact I was back, back at the beloved Dell, the game didn’t matter too much. It was the fact that I was back in the crowd, able to perform as a fan again. Matt Le Tissier started playing in ’86 and, of course, I didn’t see any of those goals he scored but just the description on the radio or the telly, the description of how he scored, it makes you think: ‘Wow, he is something else.’
“People said to me: ‘You won’t go to football again because you can’t see it.’ I said: ‘No way, I’ll be back there.’ I said: ‘I want to be there, supporting the team, in with the crowd making noise,’ and, fortunately, that’s what I do. With the audio description, I know what’s going on in the game. It’s almost like I can see the game. The audio description gives me that direct view of what’s going on.
“I guess sometimes I think I can see the game better than someone who can see it, because I’ll be stood up in my seat with my headphones on, whereas other people are trying to lean over saying: ‘What’s going on over there?’ and so on, and I’ve got it at the touch of a button,” he says, smiling.
For years Steve listened to local radio or Dan’s dulcet tones, with his son channelling John Motson to provide his father with a running commentary, but audio description technology has helped enhance the match-day experience since the service was introduced at Southampton two years ago. That service has, for the most part, relieved Dan of his duties, though he is occasionally called into action. “Earlier this season we went up to Macclesfield and they didn’t have radios, so I did it from the first minute to the last. Other fans are thinking: ‘What’s this guy babbling on about?’”
Football has helped erase Steve’s frustration – “I couldn’t really take part as a father and say: ‘Come on, you’re coming fishing or we’re going out to play football’” – and his perseverance is striking. “I do look up to him,” Dan says, “because I’ve always thought when I have down days or get annoyed: ‘Well, Dad has all the reason in the world to be despondent and give up but he doesn’t, therefore I haven’t really got an excuse.’” Steve looks immensely proud. “I’m pleased to hear that, because that makes me feel good and I think at least I’m helping and giving you a perspective of life,” he says.
Dan has made it his mission to spread the word and has emailed every club in the country’s top four divisions to raise awareness of their charity groundhopping challenge. The day before this interview Dan received a Nottingham Forest signed shirt to auction; Manchester City, Mansfield, Liverpool and Rochdale have followed suit, while West Brom have donated a signed ball.
Steve spent six months in the army at Harrogate, and the money raised is being split between Blind Veterans, whose centre in Brighton he has regularly visited, and The Blue Cross, from where they got Skai, a French bulldog, last May.
Since their first game together they have shared no end of special moments. Steve pinpoints Manolo Gabbiadini’s winner at Swansea, Dan suggests Sadio Mané’s three-minute hat-trick but the pair simultaneously identify a trip to Anfield, when Shane Long scored in stoppage time to help Southampton to Wembley in 2017. “Dad nearly went about eight rows in front of me,” says Dan, sparking laughter. Another game in which Long was instrumental also sticks in the memory, with his goal after 7.69sec – the fastest in Premier League history – providing a semi-lasting mark. “We just went completely delirious, lost it and I caught dad with my elbow. The next day he had a massive shiner and mum thought we’d been in a scrap with the Watford fans.”
Dan guides his father on the pilgrimage to St Mary’s – his dad’s right hand is clasped on Dan’s left elbow – but Steve, such an inspirational character, jokes he could walk to the ground with his eyes closed. En route to the stadium we discuss Dani Osvaldo, Danny Ings’s England credentials and the time a kick by Asmir Begovic ended up bouncing over Artur Boruc. When time allows, they complete a lap of the ground, on which Steve will touch the Ted Bates statue.
“We’ve always got a rucksack with the essentials: headset, spare batteries, some food … a half-time KitKat,” says Dan, smiling. They have experienced the highs of trips to San Siro and Sparta Prague, and crushing lows, notably the 9-0 loss to Leicester in October, on Steve’s 57th birthday. “We stayed right until the end, as we always do,” he says. “I couldn’t desert them.”
• To donate to the charity groundhopping challenge click here