EPL

From foodbanks to PPE – football's quiet heroes during COVID-19 lockdown

By Sports Desk August 07, 2020

The final elite football game of the 2019-20 season in England will take place on Friday. Not a final, but a last-16 game in the Champions League. In August. Next season will start before the month is out.

In many respects, the new normal has become just that. Only when its component parts are listed does it sound completely bizarre. Manchester City versus Real Madrid will be staged without any of the normal razzamatazz and roars expected on such an occasion.

The big moments are the ones that linger from such defining evenings but, as all match-going fans know, it is – as Pep Guardiola might put it – the "small details" that contribute to the magic. Unchanging routines, familiar faces and a sense of community, within which new features quickly become part of the matchday tapestry.

One of those during the early months of 2020 was a gazebo stationed at the end of Howard Bernstein Way, opposite City's Academy Stadium, which lies adjacent to the Etihad Stadium.

"We started it after the General Election because… you know," said Alex Timperley, one of the founders of MCFC Fans Foodbank Support.

Over the course of six collections, Alex and his team amassed more than a tonne of food for Manchester Central Foodbank. They were not the only group of football supporters stirred into action by fears over that the next term of government might mean for the most vulnerable in the UK.

"It was a numbers game for me. I was thinking we've got 60,000 coming to the London Stadium every game and if we could just get a percentage of those donating, we were on a win-win," John Ratomski of West Ham's Irons Supporting Foodbanks told Stats Perform News.

"Also, you look at the East End community spirit, which has always been a very, very strong community. They've always helped themselves and each other. I felt the West Ham fan base would be very supportive of what we're doing."

Spiralling foodbank usage in the UK is unquestionably a stain upon one of the wealthiest countries in the world. However, a desperate situation has brought about countless extraordinary deeds from ordinary people, with football fans increasingly putting themselves at the forefront.

When starting up their own operations, Alex and John each reached out to the Liverpool-based Fans Supporting Foodbanks (FSF).

HUNGER DOESN'T WEAR CLUB COLOURS

Established by Liverpool fan and now Member of Parliament for Liverpool West Derby Ian Byrne and Everton supporter Dave Kelly in October 2015, FSF – proudly bearing its tagline "Hunger Doesn't Wear Club Colours"  – held 223 consecutive matchday collections at Anfield and Goodison Park, a run necessarily halted by June's behind-closed-doors Merseyside derby.

Far from halting the efforts of a movement primarily based upon receiving donations from face-to-face interactions on a matchday, the post-coronavirus world and its myriad challenges have seen FSF and its affiliated groups, such as those at City and West Ham, step up activities and tailor them to the times.

A joint fundraising effort between City and their United counterparts tipped over £15,000 this week. That follows the two Manchester clubs, cajoled as much as inspired by the efforts of their respective fans, donating a combined £100,000 to the Trussell Trust shortly after lockdown took hold.

The Trussell Trust supports a network of over 1,200 foodbank centres nationwide. In April, it reported an 89 per cent increase in the need for emergency food parcels compared to the same month last year, including a 107 per cent rise in parcels given to children. The number of families with children receiving parcels doubled over the same timeframe.

"The one we work with, Manchester Central, in April gave out four times as many food parcels as they did last April," Alex told Stats Perform News, confirming a similarly grim picture locally.

"The flip side of that is they told us that our donations in cash and what we'd got out of the club had meant that two of the people who used to volunteer there have been able to work their full-time.

"They've got expanded capacity but that's quite a small win when you think that the expanded capacity means they're able to feed people who presumably would have needed feeding anyway but they wouldn't have been able to.

"The longer this goes on, the worse foodbanks are going to get hit so we need to keep going."

WORKING WITH CLUBS FROM THE OUTSIDE

And keep going they will. FSF is clear in the fact it does not wish to be a PR opportunity for individual teams, with working across clubs for the betterment of all a central part of its ethos.

Nevertheless, mutually beneficial relationships have been harnessed impressively, from the City group lobbying their club successfully over season ticket rebates and matchday staff pay for cancelled games, to donations and foodbank support at Liverpool and West Ham.

By mid-may, Liverpool had contributed £90,000 to its own emergency foodbank appeal, with fans more than doubling the £15,000 target of the associated fundraiser. During the spectacular on-field lights show that accompanied Jordan Henderson lifting the Premier League trophy, the FSF logo was beamed on to the Anfield pitch before a global audience of millions.

At West Ham, John's fledgling operation also won support from the boardroom.

"We reckon that, on average, we were raising about £700 a game in the value of cash and food donations," he explained.

"The owner, David Sullivan, found out that we were £3,500 short with the five cancelled games and made a direct donation from his own money to Newham Foodbank, covering any losses from those five games.

"He said he'll be more supportive, he admires what we do. That's a terrific gesture."

Sullivan also signed off a £1,500 contribution to cover 1,000 deliveries to London from the Merseyside PPE (personal protective equipment) hub, which has been a huge part of FSF's operations during the pandemic, working tirelessly to meet the shortfall experienced by frontline workers across the country.

EVERYDAY HEROES

Alex recounted the tale of Southport-based City fan Karl Dunkerly, who gave MCFC Fans Foodbank Support 3,000 PPE visors to be distributed through the Manchester care system and other groups who need them.

Even with fans being kept away from the game they love, football has provided a platform for these incredible acts of kindness to be felt more widely.

The philanthropic efforts of players through the Players Together fund, along with Marcus Rashford successfully bringing about a change in government policy as he campaigns against child poverty, were part of what started to look something like a social awakening for football in England during the COVID-19 crisis.

Premier League shirts bearing support for the NHS and Black Lives Matter, along with teams taking a knee before kick-off, underlines the shift of clubs, who are now multinational companies, embracing issues they might once have felt they could leave alone.

The group of fans committed to supporting society's most vulnerable will continue to show this kinder face of the game everywhere they look. As one strange season blurs into the next, it is no time to let up.

"I expect that there will be a large number of the public that equates a football fan to a hooligan," John said.

"It goes back to what happened in the 70s and 80s. This shows another angle to the football fan now, that they can make these contributions to the foodbank."

As the City group continue with plans to support Ronald McDonald House and campaign for more equitable arrangements in Manchester's rental sector, Alex concurs.

"There's nothing else in the country, maybe in the world, which organises people like football," he said "We're using that and we've got lots of plans."

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