I can’t say I frequently sat down pre-pandemic and gave thought to the positive aspects of football from an off the pitch perspective – more often you’d find me grumbling or rejoicing over the exploits of my sides. The sudden jolt of the pandemic and subsequent restrictions in our lives meant that changed. Now I pay much more attention to how Clubs interact, engage and work with their communities because I see how much good it does.
After the pandemic began football (Clubs, Leagues, Authorities) had to step up and evolve to maintain the meaning and connection with fans. Whilst I’m under no illusions about the recent negative perceptions around football i.e. European Super League, money, greed, etc… I do think there’s an even stronger case for football being a force of good. Buried underneath all the bad you find the uplifting things that happen as clubs work with their communities throughout the pandemic.
I wanted this piece to shine the light on how football has reconnected with its roots and maintained it’s an important role within communities at their time of need.
The Historical Connection
Community is at the core of football, and with it notions of identity and place. Football clubs have historically shared a significant connection with their local community.
During the early years many of the pioneering professional clubs were born out of local entities such as Working Men’s Clubs, church organisations or prominent industries. Clubs became intrinsically linked to cities, towns or districts and developed long standing relationships with local communities .For many years, Clubs operated independently when it came to community-facing work. However, in 1986 a collective approach was first launched in the form of “Football in the Community (FitC)” started initially by the Football League and Professional Footballers Association (PFA) at six clubs in the North West (Bolton Wanderers, Bury, Manchester City, Manchester United, Oldham Athletic and Preston North End). The programme was initially promoted as aiming to:
- Provide employment and training for unemployed people
- Promote close links between professional football clubs and the community
- Involve minority ethnic groups in social and recreational activities
- Attempt to prevent acts of hooliganism and vandalism
- Maximise the use of the facilities of the football clubs
The pilot was successful and FITC schemes were soon rolled out at all Clubs. The 90s saw FITC schemes diversify and start using football to combat anti-social behaviour. Clubs later began to remodel their FITC schemes into charitable entities.
This remodelling was given huge impetus when the Football League Trust was formed in 2008 when only 20% of Club Community Organisations (CCOs) were charities which has since risen to an incredible 99%.
At the time the pandemic hit and games were postponed concerns turned to how teams could survive this financially, what would happen to the league standings etc. However, a big focus of football clubs was not just on the financial predicament they found themselves in but looking out for their fans who had been hit equally hard.
Clubs up and down the country admirably worked quickly to support their local communities. Here is just a small snapshot of some of the schemes clubs undertook:
Aston Villa donated 1,000 packed lunches, intended for matchday staff at a postponed game, to homeless organisations, Burnley worked with the local council and a community housing company to support the town’s food bank.
Liverpool and Everton players in a joint initiative contributed to a £50,000 donation to Fans Supporting Foodbanks to tackle food poverty in the Merseyside area, whilst Manchester United and Manchester City donated a combined £100,000 to help local food banks meet the increased demand caused by the pandemic. Wolves and its ownership group Fosun helped in a different way by donating thousands of items of protective equipment for the city’s hospital and health teams dealing with the virus.
Barnsley made welfare calls to Reds season ticket holders, Brentford launched #BeeWell campaign, which aims to support children and adults with their physical and mental wellbeing, and Huddersfield Town joined the Council register to assist with prescription collection/delivery/foodbank support and Children in Care services.
Luton Town delivered books which played a major part of a key initiative in tackling loneliness in EFL Communities, and Preston North End in partnership with and partly funded by PNE players, management and fans, organised around 900 ‘essentials’ helping hampers, which have been delivered to vulnerable members of the Preston community. Additionally Watford delivered an online mental health and wellbeing programme to 100 primary schools.
In April 2021 all 72 EFL Clubs were recognised for their collective response to the pandemic by being named as the recipients of the YouGov Community Project of the Year Award at the 2021 EFL Community Awards. The community schemes collectively achieved:
- 1.4 million food parcels delivered
- Made and received over half a million phone calls to elderly and vulnerable people
- Donated over 2,000 laptops to local schools.
I found reading through all the incredible work done by clubs throughout the past year really inspirational.
The crisis both accelerated and increased the number of schemes and solid partnerships being formed through the Clubs and their community. There was a greater need for it, yes, but crucially clubs recognised that to maintain a close connection with fans and their communities they had to bridge the forced physical gap. Notably the support for the elderly and vulnerable was moving.
The football landscape is ever-changing and fans will begin to make their return. I think Clubs should be very proud of the work they are continuing to do. It won’t be forgotten when we look back on this turbulent time. Hopefully it strengthens that bond and encourages strong mutual ties, especially in the case of smaller clubs lower down the leagues who will need our backing to get through this crisis.
Football is a powerful tool when utilised as a force of good for the fans and the community.