Sport & Connected Communities

Football in the Community

The following is an extract from Stone, C. (2018) ‘Community Engagement Through Elite Sport’ in R.Wilson & C.Platts (eds.) Managing and Developing Community Sports. Abingdon: Routledge.

It provides a short socio-political history of how football clubs developed their various community engagement departments. Please use the above reference when citing this work.

Organic relationships

Professional football clubs have historically had a significant connection with their local communities. During the sport’s early years many of the pioneering professional clubs were borne out of local entities such as Working Men’s Clubs, church organisations or prominent industries. As clubs developed through the 19th century, despite some questions over their motivations, they provided a solid local identity during a period of great expansion that resulted from mass urban migration and the industrial revolution. Clubs were also a distraction from the toil and under-developed living and working conditions which many people had to tolerate. For their owners, they were used to signify local status and possibly a source of income that exploited local people’s need for recreational distraction.

Nonetheless, clubs became linked to cities, towns or districts and have developed longstanding relationships with local communities, both positively and negatively. For example, while some may see football clubs as a symbol of civic pride or personal identity, others see them as an inconvenience or aggravation.

Instrumental Engagement

The 1970s and 80s was a turbulent time in Britain with regards to football culture and, indeed, society more widely. Following years of relative prosperity changes in politics and society resulted in deep class divisions as the government of the time chased economic progress at the expense of unity within society and industry. In this context, working class communities suffered as long standing local industries declined resulting in mass unemployment. There was tension in inner city areas as increasing numbers of ethnic minorities challenged the prejudice that had held them at the bottom of the socio-economic scale and demonised them for attempting to maintain their cultural distinctiveness.

Over the same period of time, football clubs had neglected the core of their support with, for example, little in the way of improvements to stadia and a lack of investment in infrastructure. This period also saw a rise in football disorder in and around stadia as ‘hooliganism’ became synonymous with British football culture. Indeed, following more than a decade of football related violence dominating the headlines, the need for a solution left the authorities turning to clubs themselves as a possible panacea to the problem that was perceived to be dominating the sport. Clubs were also seen as having potential practical influence in supporting people within the local community who were suffering from the consequences of de-industrialisation.

In 1986 a pilot scheme, ‘Football in the Community’ (FitC), was initially started by the Football League and Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) at six clubs in the North West of England: Bolton Wanderers, Bury, Manchester City, Manchester United, Oldham Athletic and Preston North End with funding from the Manpower Services Commission[1]. The programme was initially promoted as aiming to:

  • provide employment and training for unemployed people
  • promote close links between professional football clubs and the community
  • involve minority ethnic groups in social and recreational activities
  • attempt to prevent acts of hooliganism and vandalism
  • maximise the use of the facilities of the football clubs

As part of the PFA Footballers’ Further Education and Vocational Training Scheme (FFE+VTS), it also provided a crucial role for the Association’s members once their playing careers came to an end.

Despite this range of aims, the core business activities of FitC were school-based programmes, holiday courses and soccer schools, which all centred on coaching activities for young people, fitting the sport development model of encouraging participation and promoting progression towards elite performance. This allowed clubs to benefit from potential talent if spotted through the activities but predominantly helped maintain the club’s brand with new generations of potential supporters. It also brought in a small income and provided a role for former players within the club. There is little in the way of evidence showing the achievements of this pilot but it was clearly perceived a success and led to FitC being rolled out to all football league clubs. This was perhaps because at that time there was a perceived need to address so-called ‘problematic’ categories in society and, as a result, ‘community development’ work had emerged as an increasingly common part of public policy and local authority delivery.

Expansion, Diversification and the Politics of Engagement

During the 1990s, the work in which FitC departments engaged began to expand to include other activities with a wider social agenda. Classroom based activities within football stadia often supplemented the FitC activities through schemes such as Playing for Success (PfS), a partnership between the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), the Premier League, Nationwide Football League, their respective clubs and local authorities. Football was also beginning to be used to combat anti-social behaviour, such as smoking, alcohol/drug misuse; glue sniffing and making ‘hoax’ phone calls to the emergency services (Mellor, 2002). This was an extension to the alleged benefits of sport that have underpinned policy in successive Governments. Where previously, the political pursuit of ‘Sport for All’ was rooted in the perceived developmental qualities of sport that were being lost through a gradual erosion of physical education in schools and increased post-16 drop-out, a new agenda was emerging in recognition of social structures and communities that had become more fragmented and were facing complex forms of multiple deprivation at a local level.

Independence and Professionalisation

Victory by New Labour in the 1997 general election signalled a shift in politics. Adopting something they termed ‘third way thinking’, it was believed that civil society could be rediscovered through holding those in power to account. By this time, the Premier League had been born and was developing at a rapid pace, increasing in power as it did. Consequently, the ‘business of football’ was under pressure to be accountable for the way it operated, how it was governed and the role played by media organisations, which was resulting in an exponential growth in turnover. In order to do this, the Government and those in power within football claimed football should be viewed as a community asset.

Previously, the sport had been left to its own devices, as had many other industries. Following the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster, however, football was developing from being politically classed as ‘a law and order issue’ into something of a ‘cash cow’, benefiting as it was from politically enforced change following the tragedy and commercial deals struck between the more powerful clubs and television broadcasting companies. Whilst stadium improvements were welcome, many football supporters increasingly felt they were being priced out of attending matches and thus the relationship between clubs and their supporters was arguably altering. Supporters were becoming customers; consumers of a sporting experience. Those that could not afford it were not wanted. They became the responsibility of ‘community’ departments.

A drive by the New Labour government in using sport to help realise their social agenda alongside an increasingly experienced ‘community sport’ workforce led some football club community departments to set themselves up as independent charities, separate to the football clubs themselves. In doing this, clubs were able to bring together all community-based activities under one umbrella organisation, benefit from claiming charitable status, have easier access to external funding (including government funding), work with other football clubs in pursuit of joint community goals, reduce the dependence on the team’s on-field performance, and created financial independence for community work. Notwithstanding these benefits, a key rationale for such a move was the realisation that clubs in financial difficulty could not sustain (or chose not to maintain support for) community work that was generally not perceived to be part of a professional football club’s core business – yet in many cases had become an essential part of local service provision. This was happening at a time when the core business of seeking success on the field coupled with widening gaps between the bigger clubs and the rest, as increasing amounts of money poured into the football industry, produced a rush for more riches. Ever increasing exposure on television and the financial rewards associated with it was causing some clubs to over-invest, in things like player wages, without sufficient contingencies if on-field performances fell short leading to widespread fear of insolvency. In many cases, the first casualty was the community department and the main victims those already socially excluded for whom statutory services had already failed.

Research conducted on behalf of the Football Foundation led to a number of recommendations including the development of independent community organisations and more holistic approaches to community development and engagement. This has had two unintended consequences. First, as pointed out by a report commissioned by Supporters Direct, a separation between ‘the football club’ and its ‘community department’ and, second, an approach, by the community department, that focuses more on income generation in order to survive than the needs of the community. In this scenario, the football club operates as a business, the community department as a corporate social responsibility arm. The club’s key stakeholders are its (paying) fans and sponsors and the community department provides a platform for maximising exposure amongst other stakeholders that have become defined by professionally, politically and socially conceived demographic factors.




[1] Created in 1973, the Manpower Services Commission was a public body operating within the Department of Employment with a remit to co-ordinate employment and training services across the UK. They were most closely associated with the management of the Youth Training Scheme (YTS) intended to help alleviate high levels of unemployment in the 1980s.