Everyone in football is looking for some kind of guidance at the moment. So, it should come as no surprise that club chaplains were in demand in the period where football closed its doors.
Like the rest of the football fraternity, they have had to adapt to the uncertainty of lockdown. The biggest challenge chaplains have faced is how they can be ‘present’ without being physically present.
These are people who would usually be at the training ground and making themselves available to the players and staff on a daily basis. The Premier League, Football League and non-league chaplains have been very active in many ways. Be it hosting Zoom Bible-study group for players at Birmingham City or Norwich City doing something with the local school – the football club and church together- to deliver 400 parcels of essentials to schools.
A football chaplain does many things, essentially he is a spiritual and pastoral safety net to all people engaged and employed by the club. He or she has a wide-ranging brief both playing and non-playing staff and sometimes with supporters as well.
To all and any whatever of the religious background and even if they don’t. One of the most common questions a chaplain get asked is, does he pray for the team. They pray for people, they never pray for outcomes or results of games even though they get asked often on matchdays. Like, ‘Rev are you going to pray for a good result today?’
They are not witch doctors. They pray for people within the club who have major responsibilities in the jobs not just matchday but during the week.
There may be other people in the club who may have personal challenges like illness. I can recall the Rev John Hall Mathews who was chaplain at my other clubs, Wolves, telling the congregation at Sir Jack’s funeral and how he always made him feel welcome particularly in the boardroom on matchday. Whenever he met him, Sir jack would always call him ‘padre’, ‘have a drink padre’ and another one. He always gave him his full attention. Even though he wasn’t a regular churchgoer he was undoubtedly a godly man.
Chaplaincy in football goes back many years, Tottenham Hotspur’s David Rushworth-Smith and John Jackson’s link with Leeds United – who were one of two clubs to realise the benefits of what many other communities like hospitals, prisons and the armed forces benefitted from for many years. At Leeds, Jack Charlton whilst still playing was instrumental in such an appointment at Elland Road. However, it wasn’t until Graham Taylor – Watford manager at the time – met with local Baptist minster John Boyers that football and chaplaincy came together.
They spoke of the value of a pastoral and spiritual net. Support at times of crisis and difficulty, professional presence when special services were needed, a listening ear, a totally trustworthy (very important) and confidential resource to staff and players, help and encouragement to long-term injured and to young players just starting, to older players leaving the game, to the breadth of needs in the office and administrative staff, and so on. When Jack Charlton left Leeds and took up management responsibilities at Middlesbrough he introduced chaplaincy there, asking Bill Hall to be involved in 1973.
The Watford model was a particularly accepted style of chaplaincy. The amount of encouragement by the club and facilitated by the church enabled. Over time, good, trusting relationships were built between the chaplain, staff and players. I believe this is the heart of all good chaplaincy – a good trusting relationship between a chaplain and the people at the club.
At Manchester United, a similar style was adapted by Sir Alex Ferguson and Boyers who was now at United. They always held a club carol service and do a similar service on Christmas morning prior to the early morning training session.
One aspect that was highlighted by the chaplain was one of the youth team players was being bullied by the other trainees. They immediately rang Alex Ferguson that evening and arranged to meet him at Carrington.
The following morning at 7am, they arranged to see those involved and sort out the issue. One of the sad misconceptions though is that the chaplain is relevant only if there is a crisis or disaster, but this isn’t so.
At my previous clubs, I enjoyed working with Ken Hipkiss at Halesowen Town and Paul Kelly at Hednesford who did a similar role at Keys Park. Organising an annual carol service now in its sixth year.
Even at a big club as big as Manchester United, the care and concern for the whole person has led them to endorse and affirm the value of chaplaincy in sport. The football community is coming together in ways that would have been unthinkable before the current crisis. We have seen lots of positives in the wider community especially the clap for the NHS bringing neighbourhoods together. In terms of helping one another in other areas, not just sport, will see a positive change in football.