From terrace to town
PUBLISHED: 11:51 27 January 2015 | UPDATED: 11:51 27 January 2015
It's Hertfordshire's most successful football club. Former England manager Graham Taylor spent some of the happiest times of his life here and Elton John was so passionate about it he bought it. What is perhaps less well known is Watford FC's role in bringing joy to thousands away from the terraces. Julie Lucas reports
Visit many Hertfordshire playing fields on a Sunday morning and you will see rows of parents stamping their feet to keep warm and shouting encouragement to mud-splattered children running after a football. It was at this grassroots level that Watford Football Club Community Sports and Education Trust began 25 years ago.
‘It started in the 1980s to counteract things like hooliganism,’ says community director Rob Smith, who grew up in nearby Hemel Hempstead. ‘It was a simple concept – coach young people, teaching them football skills and getting them engaged in positive activities. When I joined in 1996, there were just two of us based in a broom cupboard. We had one desk, a phone and a bag of balls.’
While some other clubs struggled with hooliganism, Watford FC led the way with family-orientated initiatives. During Graham Taylor’s hugely successful decade as manager (Watford went from the Fourth Division to the First and competed in the UEFA Cup and FA Cup final), the club introduced the first all-seater family enclosure in the league. But it was Taylor’s pioneering decision to include a clause in players’ contracts saying they commit time to the local community that saw a new positive partnership develop between the town and club.
From these beginnings the club’s sports and education trust grew rapidly and it now runs 30 different programmes involving the support of the club’s players, 80 full and part-time coaches and hundreds of volunteers. ‘We don’t just coach a few kids and kick a ball around now, there is so much more,’ Smith explains. ‘I have always believed we have to do something different at Watford. We are surrounded by some big names in the area, like Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, so we need to be recognised as a club that is affordable, accessible and welcoming. If we are seen in the community, there is more chance people will want to support the team.’
The diverse range of projects has seen the trust reach out to all ages, from toddlers to the over-55s; develop the women’s game with ladies’ teams; create sporting opportunities for the disabled, and programmes for the disadvantaged. It is estimated that last year the trust provided 6,400 sessions to 118,000 people.
One recent initiative that is having a big impact is the Watford Works project. Aimed at unemployed 16-24 year-olds, the four-week course aims to give them the skills and confidence to get into the workplace. Encouragingly, 85 per cent of those who attended the first two courses have since secured employment, an apprenticeship or further training.
As Smith explains, the trust aims to have a positive impact in five key areas: sports participation, education, health, social inclusion and community facilities. With this in mind it now runs and manages two community centres – Meriden in Watford and Cedars in Harrow.
But all this costs money, which Smith and his team work hard to secure. ‘The problem we have is that people assume we are financed by the football club and we don’t need the money, but that is not the case,’ Smith says. ‘Our costs last year totalled almost £1.5m. To finance this we rely on grants, fundraising, sponsorship and donations, although we do receive an income from some projects. We could not exist as a charity without the football club, but we are totally independent and self-financing.’
One of the key benefits of being associated with the Hornets is the players’ involvement, something for which Smith is very proud of them: ‘They are first and foremost professional sports people, but beyond that they have a duty to inspire and motivate people, make a positive contribution and to be good role models, and that isn’t always the case in football,’ he says. ‘There are a lot of things that go unnoticed and the press doesn’t always report the positive things that are done.’
Watford defender Lloyd Doyley is a big fan of the community engagement programme. The 31-year-old has been with the club since he was talent-spotted at age 11, before coming through the ranks as a schoolboy and into the senior squad. He says the club is not only a huge part of his life, but the life of the town: ‘This has been my only club. It is a massive part of me and my family’s life,’ he says. ‘I think the players being involved in the community is a good thing. You won’t see the bigger clubs doing it as often. It’s a way to connect with fans and the community.’
The club is also helping to raise funds for the trust with its ‘say no to no-shows’ campaign to ensure there are as many fans as possible at Vicarage Road to support the team. After successfully trialling the re-sale of seats during the dramatic finish to last season, the scheme is not only helping to fill the terraces but money raised from ticket sales is benefiting the trust and other charities too.
Smith says he is immensely proud to have been part of the growth of the club and the trust over the years. ‘It is nice to be involved in a club that understands what its role is in the community – it’s the DNA of this club,’ he says. ‘We are not a charity that saves lives, but I like to see ourselves as one that can change lives.’