BY EMILY LILES

In October 2013, Aston Villa joined the long list of Premier League and Football League clubs whose community programmes are charitable arms.

Official names vary from trusts, foundations, schemes and programmes but they all perform a very similar function and are deemed more successful as independent charities distinct from their clubs.

Encouraged to engage with their local community by football’s governing bodies, each club has their own focus areas suiting the needs of their cities or towns.

Birmingham is renowned for its poor diet and obesity prevalence.

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‘Villa Vitality’ is a project established in 2005 by Aston Villa which encourages local school children in years six and seven to get involved with sport and to appreciate the importance of eating healthily.

Ravi Masih is the recently appointed head of community at Villa Park and has witnessed firsthand the advantage of the Birmingham based outfit’s new charity set up.

“Before ‘Villa in the Community’ became a registered charity, the department was integrated within the club,” he said.

“Our structure was very different to how most other clubs operate and before we never chose to take that avenue.

“We are still new and very integrated within the club and that’s the way I want to keep it.

“As a separate charity, you can do so many things but even though you’re a separate entity it serves everyone’s purpose, in the best interests of the charity and the club.”

It is interesting to trace the origins of clubs recognised on a global scale today.

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Villa, and Merseyside’s Everton are among many others created through church organisations, as a social tool adopted by Sunday schools to give boys recreation and purpose away from industrial hardships.

Similarly, Manchester United (formally Newton Heath) and Stoke City (previously Stoke Ramblers) were formed from their respective railway works.

In truth, you could point to any professional, semi or non-professional outfit and find they were created through communities or for a civic purpose.

Fast-forward a century and nowadays, these same organisations are criticised for being detached from their local communities.

The general consensus is that this first became an issue in the 1960s.

A combination of increased hooliganism, relocation of many traditional communities, large scale immigration and the rise in out of town supporters for Britain’s most successful clubs are just some of the reasons cited.

In order to overcome these problems, and in the wake of the Heysel disaster, the Professional Footballers’ Association alongside the Sports Council launched their ‘Football in the Community’ scheme in the mid 1980s.

Bolton Wanderers, Bury, Manchester City, Manchester United, Oldham Athletic and Preston North End were the first six clubs to trial the programme which was predominately aimed at helping young people in terms of employment, preventing hooliganism and also utilising the club’s facilities.

Ian Laithwaite, is head of the community trust at Bolton Wanderers and he says the importance of having the stadium as a base shouldn’t be underestimated.

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“We sit within the Reebok Stadium which ensures we are very much part of the football club,” he said.

“It means we are immune from the financial strains of the football club which creates its own issues that we must deal with.

“Having the stadium as a base is beneficial for meetings and also for some of our events.”

In tandem with the formation of the Premier League in the early 1990s, football’s reputation began to revert to its origins, promoting social change.

Due to the sport’s increasing vast wealth, especially amongst the elite, the expectation for football clubs to help their local communities has risen dramatically.

This has led to the formation of charity community departments, employing people with backgrounds in this field.
Darren Moore is Coach Educator and Equalities executive at the Professional Footballers’ Association and was crowned ‘PFA Player in the Community’ in 2011.

And, the former West Bromwich Albion man says those at the top of the ‘beautiful game’ are firmly aware of their social responsibilities.

“It’s closely monitored and clubs now have to provide evidence of the work they carry out throughout the season,” he explained.

“In March we had the Football League awards and I was on the panel that decided the Community Club and Player in the Community accolades.

“Both were really tough choices as there is so much good work done by players and clubs.

“Over the last six or seven years, the Football Association and PFA have really pushed community contributions.”

It is clear professional clubs have come along way since the ‘Football in the Community’ idea first came to the fore.
Yet, even today, people remain critical of clubs and their lack of engagement.

It seems the main problem is that we fail to celebrate the important work being carried out.

Surely this type of positive material is a club or FA media department’s dream?

Scott Field, Head of Media and Communications at the Football Association, believes football doesn’t always get the credit it deserves for its community activity.

“Direct engagement is what people are in it for rather than the PR value but much of the work goes unnoticed,” Field said.

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“Clubs are taking on diverse projects such as programmes that have traditionally been delivered by council, education, health networks and some football clubs are becoming service providers like Charlton Athletic who have taken on Greenwich youth services for the local council.

“Some big businesses out there have corporate social responsibility programmes but I think football is ahead of the curve and has been doing that type of work for a long time.

“The media is always going to focus on what’s going on at the top level and we have that challenge at the FA too.

“A lot is written about the England senior team but we are as acutely tuned into an eight year old playing on a muddy pitch in Oxford and their lack of facilities.”

Masih is sympathetic towards that notion and says local publicity is vital in attracting potential participants.
“How much we do and what we do isn’t well known,” Masih added.

“I think that’s a problem for all clubs and the Premier League are pushing to get the message out there.
“On a local level we need to be publicised because one, we are proud of what we do but secondly to promote events that are happening as people may be missing out.”

And maybe one day, with the right publicity and programmes in place, the likes of Aston Villa will, through their charitable entities be considered a community club once more.

YOU CAN FOLLOW EMILY ON TWITTER @emily_liles

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