John Flanner is "Aston Villa’s ‘most inspirational’ supporter"

‘Jack Grealish, what a player. John McGinn, love his energy. Jonathan Kodjia, needs a regular run in the side. Axel Tuanzebe, he’s going to be a star.’

Like every other Aston Villa fan, John Flanner has an opinion on each member of Dean Smith’s promotion-hunting squad.

The only difference, however, is that the 71-year-old has never actually seen any of them play.

Yes, he’s stood on the Holte End joining in with every chant. He’s also listened to the views of fellow fans, pundits, presenters, commentators and critics, among others.

But since losing his sight aged 19 after developing Leber’s Optic Atrophy, a hereditary condition for which there is no cure, his experience as a supporter dramatically changed.

John Flanner

When I went blind I almost stopped going,” John explained.

“I thought there would be no point because I couldn’t see.

“But a friend said he would provide a commentary for me so I agreed to give it a go.

“It was the 1966/67 season and I remember going back for the first time as a blind man. Villa drew 3-3 with Tottenham and I still enjoyed it, so that became the norm.”

John now relies on his son, Ian, to provide updates as well as listening to commentary via an ear-piece.

He’s booked up for the play-offs and believes Villa finally have what it takes to return back to the Premier League.

“Dean Smith has got this side firing and what’s impressed me is how they’re all pulling together,” he added.

“There’s a real togetherness and that can only help us.

“I always say, if a player is playing badly, start chanting his name. Cheer him and encourage him because if fear strikes into him he will get worse.

“I need supporters in my life who believe in me when times are tough and the team are the same,

“When you give people encouragement you give them courage to come out of their comfort zone so that’s what we must do.”

John’s experience as a supporter may be different to that of his younger years when he still remembers ‘properly’ watching Villa win the FA Cup in 1957 and England’s World Cup triumph in 1966.

Yet he hasn’t let that adversity bring him down as a day in his company quickly confirmed what many had already told me.

Hands-down, he’s one of the most inspirational men I’ve interviewed and his work as a motivational speaker was rewarded with an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2014.

He’s your glass-half-full kind of guy with an infectious personality and a promotion party with Villa will light up what has so far been a difficult year.

Blind Aston Villa fan John Flanner takes a tour of Villa Park

Blind Aston Villa fan John Flanner takes a tour of Villa Park

John lost his wife, Sylvia, just two days after their 49th wedding anniversary. and subsequently moved out of his long-term home in Solihull.

She was suffering with dementia but would read Aston Villa-related news to him on a daily basis, with John admitting to one compromise.

“Because of all the football books and news stories she read to me, I had to listen to the books of her choice, too,” he added.

“Towards the end I didn’t mind the odd love story.

“But Sylvia knew so much about sport, and Aston Villa, in the end because of all the times she would read to me.”

A devout Christian, John remains strong through his faith and continues to meet difficult challenges head-on.

“When I was younger, I used to be very shy and timid,” he admitted.

“Turning blind at 19 left me with many fears. I didn’t think I’d ever get work.

“I used to be scared of girls, too, I thought I was ugly.

“The only thing I had back then was football. I’d go to the game and write a report on it.

“But I flourished through encouragement.”

After successfully proving he was capable of working, John retired in 2015 after over 20 years as an audio typist, and latterly a clerical assistant.

By strange coincidence, his old typing manager, Pat O’Kelly, was the sister of Villa’s assistant manager Richard O’Kelly.

Since turning 60 years of age, John has authored and published three autobiographical books and Villa boss, Smith, is reading his claret and blue tales entitled: ‘Beautiful Game, Beautiful Memories’.

For someone who was told they were never likely to be able to work, John has made it to many different milestones.

Receiving an OBE for services to equality and diversity was one of his proudest moments.

The award was in recognition of countless presentations he led across the UK to staff of all grades in Revenue and Customs.

But it’s not just in the civil service where he has made a lasting contribution.

Following the Heysel Stadium tragedy, in which 39 supporters died before the 1985 European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus, John wrote a letter to Doug Ellis, the then Villa chairman.

Sickened by Liverpool’s role in the disaster, he asked for Villa to set up a prayer group for “people going through personal problems”.

One of its first suggestions was for Villa and opposition players to emerge from the tunnel at the same time.

Such was unheard of at a time when it was customary for away players to be booed when they appeared separately to the home team who would be rapturously cheered.

“With both teams coming out side by side we felt it would create a more positive atmosphere in the stands,” John said.

“We wanted to pray for peace and harmony on the terraces and for sportsmanship on the field. 

“We felt that getting the teams to come out side by side would assist in that aim. 

“Imagine our shock when the fixture list for the new season came out and our first home match was against Liverpool. 

“That was the first game where teams came out side by side in a league game. 

“It finished 2-2 with Ian Rush scoring both goals for Liverpool and Mark Walters doing likewise for the Villa. 

“That only came about because of the willingness of our then manager Graham Turner and Doug Ellis to approach the Liverpool hierarchy with the suggestion and thankfully they agreed.”

Other clubs followed Villa’s lead and it soon became the norm for both sets of players to walk out simultaneously.

“It’s nice to think we had a little part to play in that becoming a tradition in football,” he added.

Now all that remains is playing a part in cheering Villa back into the top-flight.

Written by Gregg Evans, Sports Journalist

And reproduced by kind permission of The Birmingham Mail (May 2019)