BY SAM BRYANT

Football clubs in the community. It is something we hear a lot about. Through the media we regularly see clubs pushing their high profile, high earning professional footballers into schools and hospitals visiting young fans. It even has its own slot on Match of the Day.

And why not? Who wouldn’t want to see the Premier League’s favourite pantomime villain visiting a sick child? It reminds us that footballers are human, after all. But is the all-smiling face of football club’s charity work all it seems?

Ellis Cashmore is a renowned professor in sociology and sport who has lectured across the globe. Currently at Aston University, Cashmore takes a more pragmatic view of the community work undertaken by football clubs.

Whilst we would all love to believe that football clubs embark on these projects simply out of the kindness of their hearts, that would be naïve. Cashmore likens football clubs to other multinational companies.

He said: “Football clubs, like any other large scale business in the 21st century, have a mandate that reaches beyond just making money.

“They do it for the same reason the global corporations do – corporate social responsibility. They feel obliged to and whether you are a large scale pharmaceutical company like AstraZeneca or a gas supplier, you have this duty. Football clubs are no different.”

Whilst there is no quibbling over the fact that this is true – it is widely accepted that there is a modern expectation for all large businesses to flex their altruistic arm; football clubs’ community chiefs argue against the principle that work is only done because of an obligation to do so.

Stoke City’s Community Trust run a number of projects across their locality, all of which fall under four categories; sports participation, education and learning, community cohesion and health and wellbeing.

One of the main focuses that the Trust is currently tackling is the health inequalities in the city, with previous projects looking at tackling unemployment. In 2007, the number of young people that were NEET (not in employment, education or training) in Stoke-on-Trent was the highest in the whole country. Through work done by the football club, that figure has now fallen from 16% to 4%.

Head of the Community Trust, Adrian Hurst, insists that the community work is done through choice and a desire to help.

Hurst said: “The investment of Premier League funding, which is ultimately Stoke City’s money, which they choose to invest in this area, is probably bordering on around £400,000 a year.

“Football clubs do not have to do this, they choose to do this.

“The Premier League’s charitable arm and the clubs that do the work significantly outweighs anything any other multi-national companies are doing.”

These comments are echoed by Steven Day, Head of the Fulham FC Foundation.

Day said: “Other large organisations might do it through giving money away or philanthropy, football does it through engagement.

“Of course foundations are not core to the business of a football club, they are there to try to win football matches and be as successful as they can, but it is inaccurate to say that clubs only do it because they have to.

“There are many things that we do at Fulham that we choose to do within the foundation, not because we have to.”

Cashmore also made the point that first team players visiting young children gives the kids a short term boost, but no long-term impact or benefit. Whilst it provides an opportunity to boast and be the envy of the playground for a few hours, the truth is there cannot be any long-term effect.

This comment was met with nods of agreement by Hurst and Day, freely admitting that this was true. Both were keen to stress though that this was not the primary motive of a player appearance and that there is plenty of other work that goes on behind the scenes, away from the glare of the TV cameras.

The community head at Stoke City commented: “We very rarely just parachute a player into a school that we do not have any connection with.

“There will be a number of activities that our coaches will be supporting the school on already and I do not look at a player appearance as a short term thrill for the young people, rather a celebration of the work we are trying to do across the city.”

The Fulham Foundation boss, Steven Day, reacted: “A good community programme is not because a footballer turns up; it is because the staff are talented and know how to engage the kids.

“A one-off appearance will not change anybody’s lives, it may be a part of it, but it is the period of engagement that makes a difference.”

Ellis Cashmore has a PhD in sociology, is an experienced lecturer and has written an academic book ‘Celebrity Culture’. To say he is well qualified to comment in this field would be an understatement. It must be with joy to Stoke City then that despite his reservations about their ulterior motives, there is one project of theirs that Cashmore has a lot of admiration for.

City 7s is a scheme, not unique to Stoke, which targets 7-year-olds as the ideal age to identify future fans of a football club. Research was undertaken that found that seven is the age when the majority of young people first attend a football match and that the first club you see play is often the one that you grow up to support.

The initiative awards children who celebrate their seventh birthday this season with a Stoke City home shirt, two match tickets and a £5 building society voucher, all for just £10.

It is a flagship scheme for Stoke City and one Hurst is very proud of: “Part of the plan of City 7s is about trying to grow supporters and grow people into a lifelong connection with the football club.
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“If we can infect people with the disease of the Stoke City at the age of seven, we are going to make sure we have future generations coming through the turnstiles as paying customers.”

It may seem a little odd that Cashmore approves of this scheme, remembering that his issue with the community work is the clubs’ faux portrayal of benevolence. Surely this type of scheme just proves his point that all the football clubs really care about is themselves?

It is the frank and open admission of motive that he admires.

He commented: “They have openly said that the aim of this project is to get kids when they are young so they are going to be supporters of Stoke City for the rest of their lives, which I think is quite refreshing.

“If they had said; ‘we do not care whether you support Stoke City or not, we just feel that is our natural obligation as an integral member of the community to put something back into it and show these kids that we care about them’ then I would be sneering in my response and say it is nonsense.”

So is this refreshing show of honesty the way for other clubs to go? Steven Day realises the benefits of being open about fan engagement objectives, but feels it is important to remember there are many other strands of the Fulham FC Foundation’s work away from just filling Craven Cottage.

He said: “There is value in transparency and it is very important to be straight up around the areas of work that focus on fan engagement and future fans.

“There are projects though, like our employability programmes, which are solely focussed on getting people back into work.

“We use the matchdays as a reward simply because it is a good way of saying well done. We are not expecting that any of the participants will buy a season ticket or become future fans.”

To a certain degree Cashmore is right, perhaps football clubs are not as compassionate as they like to portray. Perhaps there are hidden and slightly more selfish agendas behind their community work. But both community bosses have been open in acknowledging that and it would be incredibly naïve to believe otherwise.

It is important though that, when thinking about community football work, judgement is not fixated on the player appearances we see on our TVs and in newspaper columns. To only discuss that side of the work, when there is plenty more that goes on, would be a blinkered view. The fact remains that a lot of good work is done by football clubs and a big difference can be made to a lot of disadvantaged people. If the football club decide to use that as a vehicle for self-promotion then that, quite simply, is up to them. To deny them that reward would be nonsensical.

YOU CAN FOLLOW SAM ON TWITTER @sam6bryant AND CAN CHECK OUT HIS WEBSITE HERE http://www.sam-bryant.co.uk/

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