A whole new ball game

December 7, 2020

With 14 million people officially classed as living in poverty across the UK – and the COVID-19 pandemic placing ever-increasing strain on low-income families and individuals – the importance of food banks has never been greater. In the North East, the scene is no different, with many groups providing vital supplies to the most vulnerable. One of those organisations is NUFC Fans Food Bank, which is channelling the passion and benevolence of Newcastle United supporters to help others.

When BSkyB wrested control of top-flight English football broadcasting in 1992, it was, to quote the company’s promotional material, the beginning of ‘a whole new ball game’.

After decades of under-investment, Rupert Murdoch’s £304 million power grab handed the game a new identity.

Crucially, it also gave English football – so long a totem of the country’s working class mill towns and industrial heartlands – a fresh commercial outlook.

Where teams’ very survival had once hinged on the bankrolling of local business magnates, administrators – dazzled by the riches of America’s National Football League (NFL) – were now looking through a completely different lens.

English football and its glamourous new FA Premier League – itself launched in 1992 following club officials’ desire for greater financial might – had international intentions. History shows the monumental impact BSkyB’s initial outlay has since had on football in this country.

However, it exposes some wonderful poetic irony too. At a time when millions are living below the poverty line across the UK, football fans are at the centre of efforts to help those in difficulty.

Some administrators may have forgotten the game’s roots, but supporters certainly haven’t.

Walk along Strawberry Place on a normal Newcastle United match day and you’ll find volunteers from NUFC Fans Food Bank overseeing collections.

The endeavour supports Newcastle West End Foodbank, the organisation run by chief executive John McCorry, Carole Rowland, Gemma Whalley and a swathe of other volunteers, which provides emergency supplies to residents across Newcastle, who are suffering from redundancy or delays and sanctions to benefit payments.

The sight of Bill Corcoran and his fellow NUFC Fans Food Bank contemporaries on the pavements behind St James’ Park’s famous Gallowgate End is a scene repeated across the country, as supporters overlook on-field rivalries for the sake of a greater cause.

“It’s a demonstration of unity against adversity, and of the country putting its foot down,” says Bill.

“The first food bank with a football link was set up in Liverpool, with two lads doling out pasta with a ladle into bags.

“It really reflected our natural instinct as humans to show a duty of care, and how, if we know about these things, we do something about it.”

Such a response was at the crux of NUFC Fans Food Bank’s formation.

Its catalyst came not from anything on the field, but the Ken Loach film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’, which gravely highlights the physical and social struggles of a widower tangled in the complexities of the benefits system.

“We started in December 2016 after showing the film in Tyneside Irish Centre,” reveals Bill, who began watching Newcastle United as a four-year-old with his father in 1968.

“We’d received a copy from Ken Loach himself, and the response from those in the room was amazing.

“We had about 100 lads – many of them veterans of travelling up and down the country to watch Newcastle United – and they were in tears.

“I got up on stage afterwards and said, ‘look, we’re going to do something about this’.

“So, we went off, got our necessary permits and approvals, and began in the February.

“We could have gone off and asked billionaires for support, but we’ve never wanted to do that,” continues Bill, whose fellow NUFC Fans Food Bank volunteers include Colin Whittle, Steve Hastie, Stuart Drummond and Monju Meah.

“The instinct was to go to football fans; they are good people and really care about the city and its citizens.”

As well as providing help for those who need it, however, Bill says NUFC Fans Food Bank has changed – and will continue to alter – stereotyped perceptions of supporters.

“You go to the game for a couple of hours, and you’re there for an escape, so you’re not thinking about mortgages, interest rates or the economy,” he says.

“But, at the same time, you never lose sight of the things in society around you either.

“I understand some people, who see a group of blokes that have maybe had a drink and look like ignoramuses talking in an unintelligible dialect at the match, might think, ‘oh, no’.

“But the people who go to football are compassionate and, having watched, played or had children who’ve done the same, understand the game’s tradition of respect.

“We’ve had people come to us and say they’d never realised how wonderful football fans are.

“But it’s not just the fans, it’s right across all ages, classes, races and religions,” continues Bill, who shares his time at NUFC Fans Food Bank – which is supported by Newcastle United and has donation points at the Grainger Market’s Weigh House and Grainger Delivery – with a financial advisory career at HRC Group.

“The Muslim community was one of the first to help us and we once had an Indian family come along to help us at St James’ Park, because the food bank had helped them previously.

“There were two young lads in the family and some of the fans gave them scarves and tickets for a cup match – they were beaming! “If that had been a play at the theatre, you wouldn’t have believed it,” says Bill, who is chairman of the Tyneside Irish Brigade Association and a committee member of the Tyneside Irish Cultural Society.

“During the first lockdown, companies and restaurants gave us food and supplies because they couldn’t use them, and we’ve now got people giving us advent calendars and selection boxes, and little old ladies making festive cards too.

“We couldn’t achieve anything like what we are without the tens of thousands of people who help us.”

The football club, too, says Bill, has – and continues to be – extremely supportive.

“We had managing director Lee Charnley and head of media and communications Wendy Taylor come down to West End one time, and they helped with washing up and tidying the place.

“Lee helped us get new flooring; we’d never have been able to have afforded that otherwise.

“The players have also been fantastic,” continue Bill.

“Paul Dummett and Mark Gillespie once turned up with a boot load of food, Isaac Hayden has asked how he can help and Allan Saint-Maximin came along and signed autographs.

“These lads really care, and just by being there gave people some much needed morale.”

In the present, skewed, COVID-19 landscape, fans too have relied on their heroes for optimism – though that pleasure was recently taken away for many. Subscription broadcasters shunted some matches – including Newcastle United’s fixture with Manchester United – behind a £14.95 pay wall during October and early November.

Introduced amid a backdrop of people facing increased economic strain, and England striker Marcus Rashford’s battle with Government to extend free school meals for children across low-income families during English school holidays, the levy brought the work of Bill and his fellow volunteers into sharper focus.

Fans, already out of pocket after paying for season tickets and Sky and BT packages, rebelled, with a national campaign organised to funnel the £14.95 charge towards worthy causes instead.

For Newcastle West End food bank, the backlash helped deliver at least £23,000 in revenue.

“That money paid for us to look after people for three weeks,” reveals Bill, “which puts into perspective the volumes of families and individuals we’re helping when ten pence buys a tin of beans and we can feed a family of four for a week with a fiver.

“From the fans’ television cash, and other monies from an NUFC.com auction, it raised a lot more than we would have done shaking a bucket at the Gallowgate End.”

However, while generating vital cash, Bill believes the boycott also drew a crucial line in the sand for supporters and their relationship with broadcasters.

“The backlash to pay-per-view was a warning to the Premier League oligarchs not to treat people like the French aristocrats did in the 1780s,” he says.

“Supporters are thinking that unless they’ve got a very close relationship with a team, ‘I’ll not pay the £14.95 and will instead go and watch Gateshead, Blyth Spartans or another of our non-league sides.

“The people involved in coaching know the importance of this too.

“The game depends on children wanting to go and watch matches, or if they have to, see it live on TV. But if they aren’t watching, then the model begins to fall apart.”

However, it isn’t just football that risks losing the enthusiasm and fresh thinking of its next generation if decisive Government social action isn’t forthcoming, says Bill – the entire North East does too.

By ensuring our children are able to succeed at school and grow into aspirational adults, the region, says Bill, will stand far greater chance of success.

“What is the point of the Northern Powerhouse if our children are starving?”, he asks.

“We’ve got a strong economy and entrepreneurs helping create new opportunities, but the Helix cluster of innovation stands just over the hill from the biggest conurbation of poverty in Newcastle. We really need to bridge that gap.

“We are the canary down the pit, a very real reminder of the need for more conversation.

“We should be making sure every pupil gets a breakfast before school, as well as a dinner and maybe even a tea.

“It would save the NHS a fortune if we have children who are eating healthily and participating in sports and engaging in other activities.

“The support we continue to receive at NUFC Fans Food Bank is amazing, but I really hope one day – with the right measures in place – that we’re not needed anymore.”

That really would be a whole new ball game.

NUFC Fans Food Bank
@nufcfoodbank

Newcastle West End Foodbank
@WEFoodbank

 

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