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Feature: Football never went away

A look back at football's fantastic response to the outbreak of coronavirus in 2020.

28 December 2020

The power of sport knows no bounds. EFL Clubs and their respective Club Community Organisations (CCOs) have always been, and remain, at the heart of their communities, and their importance to the daily lives of so many people cannot - and should not - be underestimated. Behind the network of CCOs and the hundreds of thousands of people taking part in community activity in the UK is the EFL Trust; the charitable arm of the EFL, an organisation striving to make a difference and working tirelessly to create stronger, healthier and more active communities…

The power of football and its Clubs has been undeniable for some time, its importance and influence increasing year-on-year and extending well beyond the 90 minutes on the pitch. While a large focus within the EFL is what happens on the pitch, there continues to be a large emphasis placed on what happens off it. The power of sport continues to change lives for the better, thanks to work carried out by EFL Clubs and their CCOs. And as we continue to live in uncertain and challenging times, that work is more important than ever before.

With the 2019/20 season suspended in March 2020 due to the outbreak of coronavirus, and a national lockdown imposed on the United Kingdom, the country was shrouded in uncertainty. Cities fell silent, businesses struggled and loved ones were lost.

Up and down the UK, and including the thousands that pass through turnstiles each week, people were told to stay at home. The Government called on the public to ease the burden on the NHS and, when those in need of support required it the most, football stepped up.

“The easy thing would have been to close the doors and stand still, waiting for things to pass,” EFL Trust Chair, John Nixon says, when asked about football’s response to the pandemic.

“But Clubs and CCOs didn’t do that, they stepped up and showed some fantastic leadership and have continued to do so throughout.”

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Following the outbreak of COVID-19, EFL Clubs, players and staff came together to collectively show that, even when there is no football to be played, it remains at the heart of communities. It never went away, and that is something that the game can be proud of.

Nixon has been Chair of the EFL Trust for nine years, a position in which he has overseen the growth of an organisation that supports an ever-increasing number of people in the communities that football Clubs represent.

With a vision of ‘stronger, healthier and more active communities’, using the power of the club badge and the affinity that hundreds of thousands of football fans have to their team, the EFL Trust continues to play an invaluable role in tackling some of society’s biggest challenges.

The League’s 2019 Community Impact Study served to highlight the above, even before the outbreak of COVID-19. Alongside the EFL’s 2019 Supporters Survey, it showed the enormous value and expectation placed on football by hundreds of thousands of people. It showed that football is an integral and traditional part of family and personal life and it highlighted just how important these Clubs are to their local communities, as well as their immense importance to local people.

So, when the global pandemic hit and the country adapted to new restrictions, it was no surprise that the footballing community rose to the challenge. In doing so, it made a significant difference in local areas across England and Wales.

“It was like the whole country had stopped breathing,” Nixon adds. “Schools had stopped, offices and shops had shut and, of course, football stopped. There were no games, training stopped and people were being told to stay at home. No-one really knew what to do; it was very surreal.

“It was a difficult time. Almost all of the Trust’s programmes involve participation and contact with other people, so they had to stop initially. No-one had ever delivered a virtual programme before, but the only way forward was to introduce virtual programmes in as many areas as we could. We didn’t want to lose the engagement we had with people; we felt that was really important.”

A staggering 36.6million people live within a 10-mile radius of an EFL club, a radius which encompasses four in 10 residents who fall in the most deprived population groups and, with 880,000 people participating in community programmes delivered by EFL Clubs in 2019 alone, the reach of these Clubs and difference they can make is, undeniably, life-changing. They are far more than just football Clubs.

“We actually put more resource into certain areas when the pandemic hit,” Nixon goes on to explain.

“We knew that, long-term, when we eventually do come through this, we need to be in a stronger position as a charity. The EFL Trust is one of many charities supporting the Government’s plan to ‘build back better’ and the aims are simple: adapt to the current crisis, be ready for life beyond the pandemic and be sustainable beyond the pandemic. For us, the coronavirus pandemic was certainly not the time to stop doing things, but instead to strengthen the organisation.”

So, as individuals struggled and communities called out for support, football began to show its importance more than ever. But, how?

“We didn’t want anyone to be further isolated than they needed to be. Football is so important to so many people,” Nixon says.

“We knew we needed to get back out there, doing what we are good at, and that’s when we looked at the how. How can we deliver programmes virtually to people? Can we help the NHS with the reach we have? Can we deliver food and pharmacy prescriptions? And we just went from there.”

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With that, over half of EFL Clubs opened their doors to key workers, offering space and facilities in stadiums for much-needed testing and accommodation. In addition, Clubs have since delivered more than 30,000 items of PPE equipment and over 5,000 prescriptions to the elderly and vulnerable.

Over 690,000 food parcels have been delivered at the time of writing, including 26,000 Easter eggs and treats to NHS staff, vulnerable adults and children over Easter weekend. Subsequently, as one-to-one contact moved online or via telephone, more than 245,000 phone calls were also made to fans by EFL Clubs.

Port Vale transformed its stadium concourses into a kitchen and distribution centre to feed the vulnerable, producing 1,000 meals per day; Cheltenham Town players raised over £6,000 for a local charity; Plymouth Argyle and Peterborough United players did weekly food shopping and prescription collections for the elderly and vulnerable; Swindon Town launched their own COVID-19 app, containing supporting education, physical activity and mental health services; Wigan Athletic delivered 2,000 face masks to care homes and hospices, Brentford distributed more than 600 activity packs to help keep children active and Pompey in the Community continued to tackle loneliness in lockdown through their ‘Keep Doing Good’ campaign. 

In the absence of fixtures and training sessions, footballers - who are idolised by fans young and old up and down the country - put their role-model status to good use, as they set out to make a difference in their respective local communities.

Instead of delivering goals, some delivered food parcels, some volunteered for the NHS, some ran online fitness sessions, while others made vital phone calls instead of tackles, all for the benefit of the most vulnerable members of society. 

Fast-forward nine months, and with the 2020/21 season in full flow - mostly behind closed doors - EFL Clubs have continued to provide more of the same.

Marcus Rashford’s appeal to make sure no child went hungry during October half-term was answered impressively by EFL Clubs up and down the country who, despite going through tough times themselves, opened their doors to distribute thousands of free meals to children in need.

“Clubs and CCOs showed fantastic leadership and have continued to do so,” Nixon says, proudly.

“Players are local heroes in their communities. For football fans, if you get to talk to a player from your club or engage with one of them, it can mean an awful lot to people. They do some fantastic work right the way through all communities.

“It doesn’t all make national news, but they’re all doing it. The work Marcus Rashford has been doing is fantastic; he’s made significant changes at Government level, which says a lot about the power of football. There aren’t many sports – if any – that could have that kind of impact on communities.  What he’s doing is on a national scale, but that kind of work is happening right the way through at local level too.

“Some of the work that went on – and is still going on now – was overwhelmingly impressive.”

With almost one million people participating in community-based programmes under the umbrella of an EFL club, Nixon highlighted the growth of the EFL Trust network as one of his proudest moments during his time as Chair. Projects spanning health, education, social mixing and inclusion and anti-discrimination continue to grow, as Clubs lead the battle against a variety of issues across the country. And there are no signs of it slowing, either.

“When I first took the position, we had a turnover of about £5million,” he reveals. “Now we have a turnover of about £20million, so it just shows you how much we’ve grown. It’s not just about the finances and the funding, our programmes have grown so much and staff are delivering more activities in the community than ever before.

“Now we’re building for the next £20million. To have that stability and growth, and with that to know that we’re making a difference, is extremely rewarding.

“One of the challenges the Trust has always faced is that it works extremely hard benefitting local communities but it doesn’t always make the headlines. But the work of the Clubs during this time has been noticed and it’s enhanced the reputation of that work.

“We want people to spread the message and keep talking about these community schemes in local areas.”

Even now, every hour of every day, outstanding work is being carried out by EFL Clubs and their respective CCOs, in turn providing hope for so many people, at a time when so much hope has been taken away.

“It’s absolutely vital to give people hope,” he says. “Everybody needs something feel better sometimes and, if you’re a football fan, football provides that. It’s that simple.

“Football has the power to help focus people’s attention on something away from their day-to-day life, for some people that’ll never change. It brings normality to people’s lives. I think that’s what was so difficult for some people through the first lockdown; there was no football for the fans, people didn’t have that escape and all people were doing was existing.

“That’s why football’s community work during that time was so important. It was a way for football to stay connected with its fans in local areas and it made a difference.”

From the outset of football's response, the safety of its communities has remained paramount and adherence to Government advice has been at the heart of the collective delivery.

Nixon concludes with a strong message, the passion in his voice evident. With the pandemic affecting us all in different ways, these Clubs continue to show that they are, in fact, far more than just Clubs. The power of football is - and continues to be – a force for good, and an incomparable one at that.

“Football Clubs give people hope and they give all sections of the community hope, too. It’s vital that we keep them going and, as an Executive, we’ve made some really key decisions throughout this pandemic to make sure that we don’t let any Clubs fall down. They’re far, far too important to their communities. We may not know what’s around the corner, but what we do know is that our work has been invaluable to so many people.”


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