The EFL Trust, the charitable arm of the EFL, appointed a new Chair in September, with Liam Scully – Chief Executive of Lincoln City and Trustee of the Lincoln City Foundation – taking over from John Nixon, who stepped down after a hugely successful 10 years in the role.
Scully sat down with Jack Wylie to discuss his arrival, objectives and the pivotal work being done by Football Clubs and Club Community Organisations (CCOs) up and down the country...
First of all, what interested you in the role of becoming Chair of the EFL Trust?
At 16 years of age, I was fortunate to be offered an apprenticeship, funded by The PFA, working as a community coach at Doncaster Rovers Football in the Community. I achieved lots of qualifications and was lucky enough to be kept on full-time. I enjoyed a 15-year career working in that side of the game, so I’m incredibly indebted to CCOs.
I’ve walked a mile in various shoes in football during 21 years in the industry and this enables me to understand both sides. Hopefully, my influence, my knowledge and my experience can maximise the potential and the reach to ensure that we have the maximum impact within our communities.
What do you hope to bring to the role?
Right now, it’s an interesting time for football and I think we’ve got a great opportunity. I think my experience and my slightly different way of working can help the EFL Trust, both proactively as we come out of a pandemic, but also by maintaining and respecting the legacy and hard work that’s gone on.
I’m really respectful of where the Trust has come from, but equally very excited to be leading this area of the game and fundamentally driving partnerships and collaboration to maximum effect.
How vital are Football Clubs to their communities?
Incredibly so. The things that Football Clubs can do as lynchpins and cornerstones of the community, with their social reach and ability to engage, it’s like no other.
The world has looked very different for the last 12 to 18 months. Elements such as loneliness, healthy lifestyle and active living took a real setback while we’ve had to operate in a world with social distancing, home working and lockdown.
I think that’s where our Football Clubs can have a key impact going forward and they’ve also had a phenomenal impact over the last 12 to 18 months by what they’ve been doing virtually and through the existing structures.
How have you seen Football Clubs respond to COVID and make an impact to support communities?
One thing we can do as we look back on the last 18 months is be incredibly proud of Football Clubs for the way they’ve reacted and how they’ve contributed to keeping communities safe and together, helping to deal with the challenges that people have faced.
We’ve seen great stories of Football Clubs distributing resources or ringing up the fanbase to have conversations with them and seeing how people are.
We can look at this from a national perspective and we can look at the reach, but fundamentally, this boils down to lots of one-to-one interactions and that’s where Football Clubs and CCOs have done an incredible job.
Football Clubs on a Saturday at 3 o’clock are a phenomenal place for community cohesion and bringing people from all different walks of life together. We lost that for a period of time, and I think what Football Clubs did really well through their CCOs is manufacture or artificially recreate those opportunities in a sincere and heartfelt manner.
Does that show that there are a lot of ‘unsung heroes’ working within Football Clubs that maybe don’t get the coverage they deserve?
We absolutely know that the stars of our show are the 22 blokes that run around on the green rectangle. What we are seeing, and it’s not always in the public eye, is that these players are human beings who are incredibly committed to the communities of the Clubs they play for. Footballers have done an incredible job of engaging with their communities during this time.
In addition to that, team members based within CCOs and within Football Clubs, either where it is their day-to-day job or where they’ve made it their day-to-day job during the pandemic, they’ve just done some incredible things.
The return of fans in stadiums this season has been a huge positive. How important is it for supporters to be back in the ground, and for the Clubs to get that support back?
I was incredibly emotional walking into the stadium on that first Saturday with fans back. One thing that we are very clear about is that football is nothing without the fans. Having them back was incredibly important for our game, not just purely from a financial point of view, but from a community aspect.
A full stadium, fans of two teams cheering on their players, the rollercoaster of emotions that you go through from 3 o’clock till 5 to 5 on a Saturday. We recognise some of the changes and the evolution for the future, but that is our sport and without fans in stadiums, we don’t have an industry.
When you delve into the core values of the Trust, there is a vast amount of work to cover all demographics and there is no one ‘left behind’, so to speak...
Football is for all. We know that and we’ve got to make sure that we continue to actively engage with communities across the breadth and depth of the UK and further afield to ensure that they feel included within their Football Clubs. I’d like to think we’re doing a great amount of work in this area.
Football is a leveller and a unifier. It brings people together. Culture and strategy can have a real multiplying effect and that’s where I’m incredibly excited about my role within the EFL Trust, as well as being a serving Executive in football.
If we continue to work at pushing the boundaries and creating those opportunities, it can only have a significant lasting impact for our game as a sport and an industry, as well as communities and the challenges that they face, from Carlisle to Plymouth.
Thinking about a specific initiative, Fit Fans has been particularly successful and shows that Clubs can motivate and inspire fans in a positive way...
Fit Fans is a very noteworthy example of what can be achieved and we’re so proud of all the participants and all those that have engaged. We do look at the scale and size of the programme and the numbers are incredibly impressive, but I get most joy when I hear the individual stories about the significant changes that it has made to people’s lives.
You can pick various areas and what you can fundamentally see is that through a lot of hard work and determination, we are absolutely harnessing the power of the sport with some very skilled and dedicated practitioners and specialists, be that in health, education or community cohesion.
Inclusion and anti-discrimination are also core areas of focus for the Trust. Having an ambassadorial role with the Asian Sports Foundation, is that something you feel you have a level of expertise to bring to the table?
I’m incredibly humbled that I’m in a position of responsibility as Chief Executive of a Football Club and it is my duty to make sure that we are welcoming and inclusive to all.
We know society has challenges and we know that not all environments are welcoming to minority groups, but I think, collectively, we can continue to challenge some of the issues that we do have in society and use the power of football for good.
We have a social responsibility, and we take that seriously. What we have seen since football and stadiums have been full is Clubs being very proactive, where they have actively challenged things that can be taboo.
They’ve set the tone and been an example for society as a whole and the most pleasing thing to see from that is the wider support this has had from communities.
What is your vision for the EFL Trust and, more generally, for Football Clubs in communities?
It’s using the power of football to have meaningful impact, making sure we bring communities closer to the Football Clubs and the Football Clubs closer to their communities.
At Lincoln City, we are very aware that we are just temporary custodians of this great Football Club that’s been around for over 130 years. We want to make sure that we protect Lincoln City as a community asset and we continue to bring pride, pleasure and excitement to the fans, but we do so in a way that is aligned and has impact with the community.
With the EFL Trust, the aim is to take those principles and broad concepts and manage that to a scale of 72 Clubs. It’s about creating solutions to meet specific challenges for people in different areas across the country.
We’ve got to be dynamic and react to what we see out in the communities and make sure we adapt and continue to meet the community’s needs. Football Clubs and CCOs are absolutely primed and in a good position to do that.
We don’t have a crystal ball to see what’s coming, but we can spot early signs and challenges. The example of tackling loneliness is a fantastic one, where CCOs, through the support of the EFL Trust, have done some phenomenal work in their communities.
You’re taking over from John Nixon, who had been in the role for a long time. Did he leave you with any parting words of wisdom?
John’s a really respected individual within football. He leaves a fantastic legacy and he’s captained the ship phenomenally well. They’re big shoes to fill and it’s a big responsibility to hold.
John has tooled me up with the knowledge and given me as much wisdom as he can possibly share, but equally he’s given me the space to shape things and take things forward, so I couldn’t have asked for any more to be honest.
I have huge respect for John and the work he’s done and there are others as well. In the past few months, we saw Keith Hicks retire from Rochdale Community Trust, having been there for over 20 years. People like that are the true ambassadors of this industry. It’s my job to continue supporting them because that’s where the difference is made.
If you look ahead 12 months or so, what will represent a successful start to the role for you?
Prior to the pandemic, there was an incredible amount of hard work put into the strategy and vision and it’s my responsibility to make sure we deliver that.
We’re operating in a slightly different landscape now and it would fill me with a sense of pride to successfully adapt to the challenges that we face. I’m very confident that we’re going to have very meaningful impact within our communities.
This feature originally appeared in the winter 2021 edition of the EFL Magazine.