Clubs deliver 640,000 food parcels to people hit by pandemic

EFL clubs and players deliver 640,000 meals to people hit by the coronavirus pandemic as MPs pile pressure on ministers to set out clear plans for the return of fans to stadiums and allow more than 1,000 to attend matches

  • League clubs have worked tirelessly to support communities during the crisis
  • As well as meals they’ve delivered 5,200 prescriptions and called isolated fans
  • Clubs want to publicise their efforts because they don’t believe ministers understand how important football is to the fans and communities they serve
  • Ministers urged to allow more than 1,000 fans into matches when grounds open

More than 640,000 food parcels and meals have been delivered to people in need by professional footballers and their clubs during the coronavirus pandemic, new figures from the EFL reveal.

The enormous operation from EFL sides up and down the country also includes taking out 5,200 prescriptions and having 240,000 conversations with people, who have found themselves isolated.

Not to mention offering their facilities as coronavirus testing stations and acting as hubs for other charitable work.

Clubs throughout Britain have been delivering food to people in need during the coronavirus pandemic, including in Scotland, where Stenhousemuir (above) staff and players helped out

The extraordinary effort underlines the value of football clubs to their communities at a time when the very existence of some remains in doubt.

As the pandemic prevents fans from attending games and leaves clubs without a huge chunk of income, but with bills to pay, at least ten will need an emergency loan to pay staff this month, with another ten are thought to be teetering on the brink in December.

And yet, the long-awaited bail-out from the Premier League is still not finalised and government has steadfastly refused to help, despite announcing a £300m package for other sports, including the National League and women’s football, on Thursday.

EFL clubs have made huge efforts to help local communities during the pandemic

Clubs privately believe that Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and Boris Johnson’s cabinet, of which very few of the 21 members have expressed any interest in football, simply don’t understand what the sport means to communities,

Or, the devastation that would be wreaked if clubs went out of business during this crisis.

One person who does get it, is Portsmouth midfielder, Ben Close, 24, who has been delivering food to people in need as part of Pompey’s emergency response.

‘It’s really special when you see someone’s face light up,’ said Close, who is Pompey man, boy and family. ‘We were lucky enough to be able to help. Players want to do their bit.

Ben Close of Portsmouth has delivered food to people in the city where he grew up

‘For me it is even more important because it is a city where I have lived all my life.’

The local lad grew up on Portsea Island close to Fratton Park and supported Pompey as a youngster. 

The first game Close can remember is a rousing 3-2 home win over Rotherham United in 2002, when he was six, and Portsmouth secured their place in the Premier League in front of 19,000 fans.

Now, his younger brother, Harry, 16, is a season ticket holder and his parents, mum, Katherine, 50, who used to work at the club’s community centre and dad, Malcolm, 64, who has run a local boys’ side from U8s right through to U18s, are fans, too.

Close, whose family are Pompey fans, has seen the impact of lockdown on the supporters

So, it is fair to say Close understands what Pompey means to local people.

‘It’s huge,’ said close, who has racked up 179 appearances for Portsmouth, most of them under current manager Kenny Jackett. ‘Football is massive here. It is a big talking point in a lot of people’s lives.

‘Not being able to go to the game has hit people really hard. It is a massive chunk of their life. People’s mental health is definitely suffering.

‘It is not getting out and seeing your family and mates and going to the football… and hopefully winning.

Close has amassed 179 appearances for his hometown club, which he joined aged 11

‘It’s not just the game, it’s talking about it with friends and family, it’s predictions, who should be playing, who shouldn’t be playing, reflecting on it afterwards, moaning if it’s bad.

‘I delivered food and supplies to a guy, who is a big Pompey fan. His health has deteriorated. You could see how much he was missing the football. It is a part of his life.’

In Portsmouth, the closure of Fratton Park will only be temporary, but the EFL warns some clubs may never emerge from the current crisis.

Pompey almost went out of business twice when the club went into administration in 2010 and again in 2012. Close, an academy player at the time, remembers the impact of those crises and fears for other clubs who may yet face a similar experience.

Fratton Park, like most English football grounds, has not hosted fans since March 2020

‘It was nerve-racking,’ said Close. ‘It was the fear of the unknown. People were just catastrophising and thinking of the worst thing that could happen.

‘It was not a nice time. For the clubs struggling now financially, it is not a nice place to be. If they went out of existence the impact would be devastating.

‘I have played against Bury [who dropped out of the EFL last season due to financial difficulties] at their place. Their fans were passionate. For the club to disappear, for those people, it is heart breaking.’

Close is not the image high-ranking politicians may have of a professional footballer.

Passionate Pompey fans are desperate to return to Fratton Park once it is safe to do so

Intelligent, articulate, hard-working, concerned about other people and desperate to regain his place in the first team, Close is probably more representative than some stereotype of a playboy millionaire.

‘It’s been good to give something back,’ he said. ‘So many clubs have been involved. People have been able to see what players are actually like. We are just normal people. This has given people a glimpse into the life of football league players and hopefully they will realise the bad reputation is not quite true.’

His concern over the wellbeing of Pompey fans is shared nationally by the Football Supporters’ Association.

‘Fans need football and football needs fans,’ said Football Supporters’ Association chief executive, Kevin Miles. ‘Going to matches is a central part of the whole identity and existence of many football fans.

Football Supporters’ Association chief executive Kevin Miles is concerned about supporters

‘It is one of the most socially inclusive things they do, to be deprived of that is having a huge impact.’

Meanwhile, government is finally considering the return of fans to stadiums, a process described as ‘slow to glacial’ in Parliament on Thursday, when MPs piled pressure on government ministers to explain their plans, after it emerged only 1,000 people may be allowed in to watch a game.

Sportsmail reported on Tuesday that the Department for Culture Media and Sport had submitted proposals to the Cabinet Office for reopening football grounds following the lifting of lockdown, where coronavirus infection rates are low.

However, it then came out that government is considering limiting the number of supporters to just 1,000, even if the club is located in an area considered low risk.

Lee Anderson MP wants to get back to the One Call Stadium to watch his club, Mansfield Town

MPs used a debate in Parliament to push DCMS and sports minister Nigel Huddlestone MP to explain the position.

‘There are rumours concerning the number of spectators, is it true that the cap will be 1,000 people?’ asked shadow minister, Alison McGovern MP.

The Labour MP for Ashfield, Lee Anderson, a Mansfield Town fan, said he was desperate to get back to the One Call Stadium, but 1000 fans would not be enough.

‘It is not enough to cover the costs,’ he said via Zoom. ‘Please look at a sliding scale attendance figure based on capacity, so fans can support clubs safely and the clubs get what they need to survive.’

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden says he hopes to secure the return of football fans

Clubs and the EFL are pushing for a figure of 30% total capacity, which has previously been endorsed by the Sports Ground Safety Authority, and would allow matches to break even, or at least reduce losses.

The government has indicated that once the national lockdown is lifted, which is due to happen on December 2, a new regional tier system will be introduced, the details of which are yet to be announced.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told TalkSport some of those restrictions will be ‘pretty tough’.

But he added: ‘I am currently making the case [for fans] to come back in a safe way as part of that process and I hope to be successful.’

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