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'It's our Time to Give Back': Football Rallies to Fight Coronavirus Depression

'It's our Time to Give Back': Football Rallies to Fight Coronavirus Depression

Sunday, 22 March, 2020 - 08:30
General view of The American Express Community Stadium as the Premier League is suspended due to the number of coronavirus cases growing around the world. (Reuters)
London - Louise Taylor and Ben Fisher

Phil Wallace is assailed by worry from all sides. As if being stuck to the bottom of League Two were not bad enough, Stevenage’s chairman fears the financial ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic could force his club to fold. For the moment, though, he is concentrating on even more urgent priorities.


Along with Scotland’s Stenhousemuir, Stevenage have placed themselves at the vanguard of initiatives whereby football clubs effectively transform themselves into emergency branches of the social services, offering lifelines to the elderly and the vulnerable placed in solitary confinement by the threat from COVID-19.


Both clubs have launched carelines designed to provide those whose might otherwise slip through the usual safety nets with help in confronting the practical, logistical and mental challenges of life behind closed doors. In offering assistance with shopping, prescription collection, gardening, household maintenance, dog walking and, above all, the chance to talk on the telephone, they offer admirable reminders of football’s role as a form of social glue and the symbiotic, interdependent relationships binding clubs to their communities.


“The coronavirus restrictions on over-70s and the vulnerable will undoubtedly cause anguish for those folks that can’t use the internet, have no relatives and no way of ordering supplies or obtaining meals,” says Wallace. “We’ve always prided ourselves on being a community club and now it’s time to show what that means.”


A long drive up the A1 in Scotland’s central lowlands, Iain McMenemy, Stenhousemuir’s chairman, is banging a similar drum as he embarks on a similar mission. He accepts his part-time League Two club will lose “tens of thousands of pounds” during football’s shutdown but, mindful of the potentially immense damage to mental health to those effectively imprisoned in their homes, McMenemy hopes to mitigate depression and fear while also providing life’s basic necessities.


His solution has been to establish a club hotline staffed by volunteers which matches a growing army of helpers, including suddenly underemployed club coaches, to individual local needs which might range from fixing a broken fence to grass cutting and sourcing toilet rolls and pasta to engaging in an hour-long chat.


“We must look beyond our own problems at the club,” says McMenemy. “We must best serve the needs of our community by helping the most vulnerable.”


Wallace’s football-related “problems” are arguably even more deep-seated. “We have no idea how long the club can survive without matchday income whilst paying players and staff,” he says. “But some people have nobody and we’ll make sure we’re there for them. We have kitchens we’re not using and young players who can’t play football so, if it means we cook food and prepare snacks, if it’s getting essential supplies to people, that’s what we’ll do. We will be there.”


Already Alex Tunbridge, Stevenage’s chief executive, has organized a community careline for the over-70s, offering food deliveries, prescription collection and dog walking in addition to signposting advice about accessing specialist local services and businesses. On Tuesday, he briefed club staff detailing their changing roles as they are redeployed to the careline.


“As a local community organization, we’ve got two choices: we either shut the club or change our product and services to meet local needs,” he says. “We are no longer a football club at present. We are turning the club into a community careline.


“We’re embedded in our community. We need our community to support this club and that’s what we ask for week in, week out, but the role’s been reversed. It’s our time to give back to our community and that’s the mantra of everyone involved. We could have players on the phone just having a chat to people. It might be taking an elderly person’s dog for a walk.”


Premier League players are less likely to assume mud‑on‑boots roles on the community assistance frontline but Stevenage’s Hertfordshire neighbors Watford have mined their databases for contact details of supporters before launching the “Hornets at Home” initiative. It involves the club writing to elderly and disabled fans asking whether they need help before putting them in touch with younger season-ticket holders willing to assist with shopping and domestic chores or simply engage in regular morale-boosting conversations.


The plight of the increasing number of Britons dependent on foodbanks has been exacerbated by the panic buying which has stripped supermarket shelves. Newcastle United have long had a close involvement with the city’s West End foodbank, the largest in England, which feeds 3,000 people on Tyneside every month. Allan Saint-Maximin and Isaac Hayden are among first-teamers to have recently helped to distribute food parcels and the charity was delighted when the club gifted them all the food intended to be served up in the St. James’ Park executive boxes and hospitality suites at last Saturday’s postponed match against Sheffield United.


“We normally have a terrific response when we collect food and cash donations from fans before home games,” says Carole Rowland from the foodbank. “And now we’re grateful, yet again, to Newcastle United’s constant generosity. We couldn’t continue to fight food poverty without them.”


Across the Pennines, Manchester City are among a number of clubs to have donated provisions to homeless charities in recent days but England’s champions are also concerned about Brookdale View Care Home in Newton Heath. Aware the residents are currently barred from receiving visitors, City have dispatched a large consignment of potentially spirit‑raising spring flowers to the home.


“Despite the darkness of these worrying times there is always good happening,” says McMenemy. “The way members of our community are rallying round us is an inspiration.”


The Guardian Sport


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