As a Liverpool fan I faced a few barriers getting to Goodison Park on the day of my interview- walking through the gates was hard enough. When I was seated in a box overlooking Goodison Park it became harder still when I actually felt myself becoming slightly awestruck at the empty ground, the atmosphere, the history. After spending an hour with Chris Clarke, it became clear that Everton Football Club really are a people’s club, and the work of Everton in the Community is a large part of that. Chris Clarke is the Business Manager for Everton in the Community, and he kindly spent time answering the questions of myself, Carmel Parker and Cat Batch.

 

Chris began by explaining the history of Everton in the Community, an organisation affiliated to the club which became a charity in 2004. Established in 1988, as “one of the first clubs to venture into community work” as Chris describes, their formation was a clear response to the social, economic and political problems facing Liverpool and its inhabitants. He explained that the large numbers of unemployed young men were those same fans who graced the terraces of Goodison Park on the weekend, and a link was drawn between hooliganism and socio-economic situation. Everton acted upon this, feeling that, as Chris outlines, they “had a role to play and a real responsibility to try and counteract that”. And that was what they did, with schemes emerging that encouraged and facilitated “better life opportunities and making better choices”.

 

The raison d’etre of Everton in the Community, unfortunately, has not changed much in the past 26 years, with Liverpool and other key urban areas once again facing the same problems as in the 1980s;

“Liverpool as a city faces its biggest challenges since the 80s. They’ve already made £142m worth of cuts in the last two years, by 2016 they have to make another £157m worth of cuts, so much so that by 2016 they probably won’t be spending a penny on non-statutory services.”

Everton in the Community recognise this, as is evidenced above, and strive to make grass roots attempts to combat the effects of cuts in the communities themselves, using the status of the badge and their strong communal standing as a key means of doing that. Chris explains that Everton in the Community really are “an iconic organisation that our communities listen to”. Moreover, Everton in the Community work to fill gaps and compliment services in existing statutory provision across the education sector, the youth justice and young offending sector, and mental health. It seems nothing is too big or small for Everton in the Community, with Chris commenting that “we’re ambitious- we’ll aim to be at the front of the queue for everything …whether it’s health, education, employment…the library service, we’ll certainly have a look at it”. The unerring drive for progressive change is unmistakable.

 

The success of Everton in the Community can be seen in their prominence in the social care sector, with referrals coming from Mersey Care NHS Trust, Job Centre Plus and several other external services.  With twenty-five active services, it is clear that they are doing vital work, and increasingly private providers are looking to refer their service users to Everton in the Community’s schemes. A key example of this is ‘Pass on the Memories’, a scheme ran for people with dementia; initial referrals came from Mersey Care but now the charity is looking to expand so that afternoon sessions are available, along with a variety of other access routes. Schools have also always enjoyed strong links with the club, and this will undoubtedly continue. Aintree’s Archbishop Beck School is set to become the hub of the disability sports programme, with Everton in the Community having “a real presence on their site”. Furthermore, Everton Football Club have actually established their own Free School in the city, with a specific target audience of “disenfranchised young people” (http://community.evertonfc.com/education/everton-free-school/).

 

Chris explains that a lot of people question the role that Everton play in the community, asking how a football club came to be involved in the health sector, the youth justice sector, the rehabilitation sector. His answer is simple; “that badge- [it] opens up so many doors and it makes people listen”. Its ability to engage members of the public, young and old alike, with issues such as their health or their education, is unyielding.  A key, and impressive, example of this is the men’s health programme, which has been hugely successful in engaging men of all ages and working to tackle the causes of preventable health problems. Several of these participants are reluctant to visit their GP about any health issues, yet the respect that Everton Football Club has within the community makes them an accessible and influential charity. Furthermore, the professionals the charity has been able to attract as part of their workforce has brought not only expertise but extensive contacts within the public sector. This enhances funding opportunities as well as access to other services.

 

The overwhelming aim of Everton in the Community is using the power of sport as a vehicle for social change and individual empowerment. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in their youth programmes. The work of Everton in the Community has contributed to a 55% reduction in anti-social behaviour and a 79% reduction in crime in targeted areas, and the Kicks programme forms the main basis for that statistic. The idea being simple; “if kids are playing football they’re not committing crimes”. Since then it has become so much more. Ran in conjunction with Merseyside Police, the workers on the programme come from within the communities they are working with, providing positive role models for young people. One of the best examples of this has to be the youth engagement coach who went on win an FA award for his work, as Chris explains;

“This is a guy who’s from the Norris Green area and he’s had it tough with his own life and also with some of the coaching he does round there. The kids all look to him and go ‘God if he’s done it, maybe I can’.”

This shows that the aim of local empowerment is not limited to participants; it works both ways, for the coaches as well. Young people are also heavily involved through their schools and apprenticeships to ensure Everton in the Community adopt dynamic, suitable and innovative approaches. The inputs from young people and the staff are so important because they are working in “communities where it is hard and the kids are on that fine line between jail and drug abuse”; areas in which young people face “a lot of peer pressure, a lot of feelings of hopelessness about going down the wrong route” (Chris’s words). Everton offer an impressively successful scheme, which is open-minded and sensitive to the varying needs of the participants, to allow these young people to overcome the barriers put in place, and indeed enlarged, by the economy and society since the 1980s. The practitioners at Everton in the Community provide an essential support network for young people who may not receive it from school, home or the state.

 

Gender is also addressed within these programmes, recognising that while the majority of match-goers are male, girls in the community require support as well. An increase in female coaches and workers has led to “lots of breakthroughs with young girls in the communities” after a need in that area was recognised. This was also the case for people who may benefit from the schemes but have no interest in football; there are now large non-football programmes that continue to push the work of Everton in the Community even further beyond the boundaries of Goodison Park and the blue half of the city. This reflects the dynamism of Everton; their ability to recognise gaps in provision and fill them is virtually unparalleled.

 

Everton in the Community’s disability programme mirrors many of the strengths above. A hugely influential and inspirational role model is provided in the form of Steve Johnson, Paralympic volleyball player and England Amputee Football star, who has played a pivotal role in Everton’s disability scheme. Within the programme, football is used to attract service users but then, from that starting point, referrals can be made to both internal and external education and employment schemes. Once again, the badge and prestige of Everton Football Club is used here in a positive way; “as a football club we’re able to challenge misconceptions and challenge public opinion”. This is not limited to prejudices and assumptions about disability – Chris believes it’s relevant in unemployment and mental health as well;

“That’s another major area that we’ve got a responsibility in looking to across all our schemes. You know, thinking that someone with a mental health problem is this, that, or the other; thinking that someone who is unemployed, having misconceptions and preconceived ideas. Because we are so iconic, and in the public domain, we can challenge people’s views and perceptions”.

Indeed, employment is another key area of work for Everton in the Community, with Job Centre Plus being one of the bodies that refer service users to Everton. This has also been a huge success;

“People come to our employment schemes who have spent years on the dole, going to the same job centre office, meeting the same person, signing the same forms, without any real motivational desire to gain employment. All of a sudden, they’re here; it’s an inspirational environment, talking to someone they respect because they’re from Everton. We’ve started making real breakthroughs and it’s massive. It’s absolutely massive”.

Once again, the prestige of the badge is evident here, and sometimes more than that, the badge provides common ground. This is reflective of the reach of Everton in the Community; it is clear that nothing scares them and they are willing to develop programmes to tackle problems where they see them.

 

These attitudes are carried over into BME schemes, an area in which Chris believes the club still has vital inroads to make. He explains how Everton are seeking to “take the lead as a football club and really engage with kids from different cultural backgrounds”. However, overcoming the barriers posed by decades of racism within football is challenging, and Chris talks about a whole generation of supporters who have been alienated from football because they haven’t inherited the passion and love for the game that so many learn from parents, cousins, grandparents and siblings. The previous generation were undoubtedly shut out from the game, in the era when black players faced monkey chants (that is not as far in the past as would be desirable) and football simply “wasn’t a welcoming environment for people from different cultural backgrounds”. In addition, the whole structure in which the game operates requires substantial change; there are only five black managers in professional English football, the rest are white. There are also geographical barriers as the football club is in, to quote Chris, a “predominantly white, working class area of the city”. Despite these barriers, Chris’s determination is obvious; “we don’t see this as something that scares us at all and we’re damned determined to make a good go of it”. He wants to use the club to show young people in the city who aren’t white that a career in football, whether playing or coaching, is a viable option. To Chris, this is necessary in order to make a difference; indeed, the grass roots element is vital.

 

Everton in the Community began by reaching out to their fan base, then football supporters everywhere, then non-football fans. They are now attempting to make a global imprint through schemes such as Premier Skills. This is a Premier League-wide scheme that takes British coaches out to other countries where they transfer coaching skills, enabling local people to “become real pillars of the community through football”. Everton as a football club have provided the most staff out of all other participating clubs, but their reach exceeds that of this particular scheme, with staff travelling all over the world at the request of governments and sports organisations. Chris visited China with Everton in the Community as part of a scheme that used football to empower people with disabilities. He explains that “we’re talking to lots of different providers now in the world to see how we can replicate what we do here and what we can achieve in those countries”. Everton’s work in this regard is largely unique because they aren’t scouting out new talent for the club in these schemes, they are working with community coaches and leaders to empower them to tackle social problems facing the community using football and sport in the same manner as has been done in Liverpool.

 

Moving on to a more personal level, we asked Chris about his most rewarding moment at Everton in the Community. He describes the success of Imagine Your Goals, Everton’s award-winning mental health programme, the first service he developed whilst working as a development officer;

“We were operating from a leisure centre which has now been knocked down over on the park there but within a year we were operating from 8 different centres right across the region; Southport to Garston, over the water on the Wirral. Over 200 participants in 18 months were accessing the programme every week and in 2010 it won the National Sports Industry award, which is like an Oscar in our industry….But for me I was most proud when Imagine Your Goals was rolled out nationally…for me to know that I can go to Birmingham, Newcastle, London and sit with someone who can say Imagine Your Goals has changed my life”.

It is clear that there will be many former participants across Merseyside who can make that statement about a programme they completed with Everton in the Community, their work so far-reaching and their commitment so strong. It is evident from talking to Chris that they have no intention of stopping until every group imaginable is catered for, every need addressed, every gap in service provision filled.

 

After talking to Chris I find myself converted; Everton are the People’s Club through and through. If you’re interested in becoming involved visit their website to see what you can do.