Why football clubs matter more than results
What does a football club mean to you? Are you only concerned about what happens on a Saturday afternoon/midweek evening and nothing else? Or does a football club play a more important role than that?
Take, for example, the story of Josie Ogle.
Desperate to find something that would give her terminally ill husband John some enjoyment in his last days, the pensioner spotted an advert in her local newspaper for a weekly social event at Watford Football Club.
"Had it been in a church hall, he would not have been interested but because it was at the football club he was happy to go," Josie told me.
They went along and discovered a friendly and welcoming atmosphere, with a range of activities from board games to Tai Chi and indoor bowls.
Specifically targeting the over-60s, the Extra Time club runs from 1000 until 1200 on Thursdays. For Ogle and her husband, it soon became a regular date in their diary.
"He was motivated every Thursday even if he did not feel well," said Josie. "As we made friendships, I think he saw that there would be something for me after he died."
Tai Chi is one of the exercises at the Extra Time club at Watford. Photo credit: Watford football club
Josie's husband died early last year. Since then, the Extra Time club has played a crucial role in Josie's life.
"It has been really great for me. The support I have received since I have been widowed has been wonderful," she added.
The Extra Time club is funded by Watford and partners in the private sector. It is one of 10,000 projects run by the 72 clubs in the Football League, projects that enage more than 1.4m people, with more than 30% of them female.
Many of the activities, schemes and programmes have nothing to do with football.
"It goes right across the board," said Watford community director Rob Smith. "Take the area of health - clubs often deal with issues such as childhood obesity and a lot of them run mental health programmes."
After moving to Norwich from Cumbria in 2002, Michael suffered a series of devastating personal tragedies, including a failed relationship that resulted in a period of heavy drinking and depression. He ended up rudderless, living in temporary accommodation.
A hostel worker at the YMCA pointed him towards Street Life Soccer. Apprehensive and unsure, he nevertheless went along, encouraged by the fact that the session was being run by coaches from Norwich City. It was the start of the process that has helped him get back on his feet.
"The sessions took away the negative thoughts," Michael told me. "I found myself being a key character and sometimes the leader in the groups."
Today, Michael has his own flat, a part-time job at the YMCA and has passed his Football Association Level 2 coaching certificate. He also works as coach for the Street Life Soccer project.
When I started to look into scale of the community work that clubs do, the sheer size of it took me by surprise.
At Watford, there are 22 full-time employees, more than 60 part-time workers and numerous people who help on a casual basis. The Charlton Athletic Community Trust has 42 full-time employees and a further 139 on a part-time basis, while League Two club Barnet had one member of staff a few years ago but now has nine.
Numerous projects illustrate the breadth of the schemes being offered.
There is the Winning Mentality project at Derby County that uses football coaching to help adult males in Derbyshire with mental health issues; the Changing Goals programme at Northampton Townthat uses football as a vehicle to engage young people and adults with a history of drug and alcohol problems; the Stand up for Autism campaign at Notts County; and the work done by QPR and the Down's Syndrome Organisation.
The list goes on and on.
Overseeing all this community work is the Football League Trust, which was formed in 2007. Dave Edmundson, the Trust's passionate and enthusiastic general manager, is a big fan of the projects and schemes that clubs run.
"We try to put on projects that can help anyone," said Edmundson, an ex-chief executive of Burnley. "The Premier League has a global brand that operates on a different stage but we work on the streets of England and Wales. The Football League club defines the DNA of the town that it serves and has the power to overcome natural suspicion.
"We have a 72-strong band of brothers and sisters marching together, grasping what can be achieved and the underlying overall purpose: to use football to make a difference."
To a greater or lesser extent, every club is involved in a permanent struggle to secure enough funding to maintain and develop their projects. The Professional Footballers' Association contributes but the payments from the Premier League have been restructured as part of the new solidarity deal and it is now up to each club to decide whether the money previously ring-fenced for the community programme is spent in that area. Each Football League club currently receives £25,000 from the Trust.
"I think it is important that we raise profile and awareness so that we can not only maintain support from football authorities but also external funding from public and private sectors as well as individual donors," added Smith. "We do get funding off the council but that is becoming increasingly difficult in modern times."
Edmundson is keen to spread the word about the community work at clubs. Photo: Football League
Smith is keen to develop Watford's presence in the local community by establishing a series of permanent hubs, branded in the club's colours and able to engage day in, day out with all parts of the community. Enticingly, the local council is in the process of letting out some of its community centres but finance could be a problem for the Hornets.
"We are looking to put a tender bid in for one of the centres, brand it up, hire it out and get funding for astro-turf," said Smith. "Everybody would win but the problem is that, because don't have support financially, it would be high risk if something went wrong."
I recently attended a Football League Trust function at which Edmundson and Football League honorary life president Lord Brian Mawhinney, among others, described the community work that clubs do as the organisation's best kept secret. They don't want it this way. They want their community work to receive a much wider audience.
To achieve that goal, Edmundson is keen to persuade key government decision-makers that his organisation can help them fulfil their aims for society. The Football League Trust has been chosen to pilot the National Citizen Service scheme, which is aimed at developing the skills of school leavers. Eight clubs will trial it in the summer, each one working with 100 people during a two-month period. Several clubs are also involved in the Future Jobs Fund scheme.
At the Extra Time club in Watford, regular attendees have started contributing a small weekly fee to help cover the costs. Josie told me that she has her fingers crossed that the club will continue to secure funding.
"Without it," she told me, "I do not know what I would have done after my husband died."