Monday, June 24

Jeffrey, the dog who went viral at a football match – and the touching story behind him

Jeffrey has been going to Luton Town games for more than six years and has slept through most of them.

There was no change to the labrador’s routine on Saturday afternoon for the visit of Tottenham Hotspur to the perfectly named Kenilworth Road stadium. Jeffrey napped his way through the game again and, while snoozing, a video of him was surging in views online. The short clip of Jeffrey in the Main Stand with his owner Matt Claridge first appeared on TNT Sports’ live coverage ahead of kick-off and has now been watched millions of times.

Jeffrey becoming a viral sensation is news to Matt when The Athletic approaches him and his dad Chris in the main stand following Luton’s 1-0 defeat.

Matt, 44, was born blind. Through treatment, he regained some sight in both eyes but he has since lost all vision in his right eye and sees only partially out of his left. That means he puts full trust in his “best mate” Jeffrey, who he describes as a very loving dog. Jeffrey expertly guides him in and out of the stadium, across roads and onto buses.

“He reacts to the (referee’s) whistle,” Matt says. “When the whistle blows he looks up. But he’s normally asleep and getting people covered in dog hairs. If I jump up for a goal, he jumps with me. I wouldn’t bring him if it bothered him or if he couldn’t cope with it. He just lays down in front of me and sleeps. He has slept through the rise from League Two (to the Premier League).”

The nine-year-old dog, who when he’s not working enjoys clutching his collection of teddy bears at home or putting his paw on your arm to request a cuddle, is famous around the club. But his owner, and those with season tickets in this section of the ground, never expected Jeffrey to become a world star like he has this weekend.

“He’s probably the most famous guide dog in the country at the moment,” Matt later says from the George II pub in central Luton with the video having doubled in views by the time we get there.

This will be Jeffrey’s last full season as a match-going regular. In 11 months’ time he will retire and be looked after by Matt’s father Chris, who lives with them half an hour up the road in Bedford. Matt’s name will then be added to a waiting list for a new guide dog — a process he says could take up to two years.


Jeffrey with owner Matt and other fans. He was sad to see Luton not take the lead (Caoimhe O’Neill/The Athletic)

Chris is his son’s carer and has almost always been at his side for Luton games. Around 2016, though, Chris became ill. He spent four months in hospital awaiting a liver transplant and, during that time, was also diagnosed with bowel cancer, a battle he has since overcome.

Going to the football with his dad has always been an outlet for Matt, who was severely bullied at school. It proved to be even more of an escape when his dad was unwell. And that is when Jeffrey started attending games, to guide Matt in the absence of his dad.

“I got bullied,” Matt says, as Jeffrey, wearing a Luton-themed collar, sleeps soundly at his feet. “I just had to deal with it. The teacher wouldn’t do anything. I was beaten up. They aren’t my best memories.

“They (other pupils) would throw footballs at my face and break my glasses. I had chewing gum put on my seat, they would stick stuff on my clothes. It was cruel.

“I’ve moved on. I got a good job (working in IT for a bank). When I go home tonight, I’ll go down the pub and Jeffrey has got his own bed there and I’ll have a few drinks. I have people.”

One of those people is his dad. And when Chris was well enough to return to matches, Matt, who is not comfortable using a cane after being bullied at school when he tried one, continued to take Jeffrey with them.

At half-time, Jeffrey’s high-visibility harness is put back on to signal he is working. He then guides Matt to the toilet and back. During the game, it is Chris who commentates for Matt, who is unable to see the ball or recognise players.

“I try and communicate with him, tell him if it’s a corner, a foul, if people get excited all around us I’ll tell him why,” Chris says.

There are earpieces available with radio commentary in certain grounds but Matt prefers to hear the voice of his dad and those around him describing the game, like their friends Peter Clarke and his son Scott. The four of them have been attending Luton games together for two decades.

Jeffrey has travelled with them to away games before, but Matt prefers not to take him. Not only are there accessibility issues such as steps and inadequate lighting, but there are usually a lot of people drinking and it doesn’t always feel like the safest space for Jeffrey. “You always get one idiot,” Matt says.

When they went to Wembley in May for the Championship play-off final (which Luton won on penalties to earn promotion to the Premier League) it was Matt’s mother who took care of the dog.

I didn’t see much of the game. I just go by the atmosphere and people’s reactions. I was about five rows from the front and you don’t see a lot, even when you can’t see,” he chuckles. “I got home, went and picked him up and watched the game again.”

Matt’s younger sister Rebecca is also blind and both spent a lot of time in hospital during their early years.


Jeffrey is petitioning to change the name of the ground to Kennel-worth Road (Caoimhe O’Neill/The Athletic)

“As a parent, it is heartbreaking,” Chris says. “This happened 40 years ago; at that time medication and everything wasn’t as up to date as it is now with laser treatment and all that. Things have moved on so much.

“You just learn as a parent and you have to adapt. It gives me great pleasure in bringing him to the game and to see him there, just being with people.”

As for Jeffrey, his working licence was recently extended by six months which means he will retire in September 2024 instead of in March, when he turns 10. This means he will be able to continue to guide Matt to Premier League home games for the remainder of Luton’s surreal season.

His final games will likely be in August next year, at the start of the 2024-25 campaign. If Luton fail in their attempt to avoid relegation, they will drop back down to the Championship, but that doesn’t matter to Matt. He has followed them during their non-League days and will continue whichever league they are in.

Whatever happens, come August, Jeffrey will no doubt be sleeping through.

(Top photos: Caoimhe O’Neill/The Athletic)