Commentary Box: The charity shield

MOST major football clubs today have some form of charitable foundation or set of initiatives aimed at “sharing the love” in the community. Some might argue this is no more than a club should do given the vast sums of money players earn. Likewise, given a football club depends, to a large degree, on the support of the public in order to make it a going concern, giving something back is the right thing to do.

But the cynics among us might dismiss the charitable efforts of corporates and football clubs as an attempt to make virtue signalling  – the overwhelming fascination with the military is one example – part of a community strategy. Football clubs might just be a little embarrassed by the amount of money being channelled into wage packets and look to tip the balance a bit by portraying themselves as “really good guys”.

Association with charity is something that has been building in the corporate world for some years, but mostly since the global financial crisis of 2008. Financial institutions that helped tip the world into crisis have made extraordinary efforts to resposition themselves as quasi-philanthropists. In the workplace, ambitious professionals insist on platforms like LinkedIn they are seeking “volunteering opportunities” or will include examples of their own “goodness” in their CV. Potential new recruits from universities are told to include some “CSR” element in their resume to indicate they are well-rounded people who “care”.

Corporates go to great lengths to publicise their CSR efforts, often to disguise or play down their real raison d’etre – i.e. making money. They will plaster images of their staff feeding children in Africa or walking among townships in some deprived part of the world. In short, companies are so red-faced about the enormous gap in wealth they make themselves feel better by suggesting, “look what we are doing for these people.”

From a personal perspective, I was once told that if I wanted promotion, I should perhaps “do some things that I might not naturally want to do”. In other words, enter into some charity work that people got to hear about. I did it, reluctantly (not because I don’t like charity, but because I want to choose my charity) and got promotion. Afterwards, I stopped, just to make a point.

This is an example of how it works, and it may just be that football is going down this same path. While the major clubs have these quite effective foundations, giving the impression they are caring, sharing people, they are are also asking fans to pay ludicrous prices for match tickets, pushing for more broadcasting money and, in the case of the European Super League drama, possibly holding the game’s governing bodies to ransom.

Greed on one hand, philanthropy on the other – surely hypocrisy at work? Also, football is supposedly the game of the people, so how do you explain a certain high profile club trying to squeeze people out of their homes in order to gain ownership of everything around their ground so they can expand or leverage the property market? Charity clearly not beginning at home!

Charity is, without doubt, a good thing for any institution to be involved in, but where it goes wrong is when it becomes part of a marketing strategy, and some football clubs are in danger of doing just that. Britain has always been good at charity, but I have always believed that the really decent folk are those that do not talk about their charitable activities or advertise their virtues. Genuinely “good” people do not tell you how good they are, you come to that conclusion about them naturally. It’s a similar story around diversity, which is not just a vehicle for high profile events that get a club publicity, it is a frame of mind as much as something to fly from the flagpole.

Some clubs have a strong CSR ethos running right through them. Watford, for example, have long developed links with the community. Some players also have a genuine desire to give something back and these individuals should be applauded. Importantly, charitable initiatives should not be a way to provide great marketing opportunities, they should be confined to providing help and not expecting kudos in return. Football has to avoid following the path of so many misguided corporates who believe that one good turn does not compensate for a multitude of sins.

Photo: PA


When commerce had a heart and soul

Bank of England FC, winners of the AFA Senior Cup 1923-24
Bank of England FC, winners of the AFA Senior Cup 1923-24

THIS WEEK, I ended 41 years in the City, the last 26 of which have been as a writer and journalist. I started my career at NatWest, in the days when banks were certainly more respected institutions than they are today. They were also great sporting entities that provided non-league football with a few decent players.

When I was a teenager, turning out for NatWest, the name everyone used to mention was Ian Cooke, who played for Southern League Wimbledon. NatWest was more a rugby company and football was really seen as the game of the proletariat. Westminster Bank (one half of the merger that began NatWest) initially wouldn’t allow Cooke to play in the Southern League, but eventually, he was permitted to sign for Wimbledon.

The City was awash with part-time footballers, however, as well as the odd former professional player. One day, when I was talking to our head messenger in Threadneedle Street, a rather urgent little man came dashing into our lobby, asked for a signature and said he had to run. “Ex-Spurs man is Tommy,” said old George, our tyrannical head porter. He was referring to Tommy Harmer, who played for Spurs, Watford and Chelsea. I once tried to engage in conversation with him when he returned to 41 Threadneedle Street – to ask him if he had in fact scored Chelsea;’s vital goal in a promotion clash with Sunderland in 1963 with his groin –  and he just smiled and made his excuses to leave.

In later years, Terry Robbins, who played over 300 games for Welling United and was player manager at Bishop’s Stortford in a long career, worked for Lazard Brothers, an investment bank based in the City’s Moorgate area.

Anyone who has worked for an old City institution will be aware of the sports facilities that these organisations used to provide. If you flew across South London, Kent and Surrey in the mid-1970s, you would have looked down on acres of sports grounds comprising rugby, football and hockey pitches.

Sometimes, if you playing branch games or specially-arranged fixtures, you might come up against some really gnarled old campaigners. I once played a game against a military team, at Bromley’s Hayes Lane and scored in the very first minute. The gigantic defender whom I’d skipped past to score was not happy and said, “young ‘un, that’s the last time you do that…and it’s the last time you’ll try it.” At 18, I was scared witless and barely touched the ball again. In fact, I was subbed at half-time. But even today, if I go to Bromley, I remember that goal at what is now the Norman Park End. And the plunge bath!

After two years or so of playing for NatWest, I had some offers to play at a higher level. For me, the problem was that they were all south of the River Thames clubs and that was not easy for me to get to, so there was no future in it. I also didn’t feel I had the physical strength to play at a more serious level.

But corporate sport was quite popular in those days and companies liked to encourage fresh air and exercise. The banks might not have been as paternal as the likes of Cadbury’s or Lever Brothers, but there was a feeling that sport made people more rounded individuals.

Some of the corporate teams played in the Southern Amateur League and included half decent non-leaguers, but the further down the pecking order you went, the teams would be a rag-bag collection, most wearing variations on the NatWest colours that resembled a continental outfit.

Since those days, when if you were a football fan, people looked at you as if you had two heads, or – even worse – a hooligan, the City has become a hotbed of football patronage. Barclays Bank sponsored the Premier, as we all know and the age of the corporate box sees multitudes of bankers and other financial professionals profess a love of the beautiful game.

Not many of these people will be aware that the City of London does have a football team – called simply City of London FC. They play in the Amateur Football Combination Intermediate South Division and their home ground is in Catford, not a million miles away from where I once played. I may have to check them out!

Most banks sold off their sports grounds to cash in on property prices over the past 30 years. And with that, some of the heart and soul of these organisations was transferred to the balance sheet. Times change, but is all a far cry from today’s City of London, I’m afraid.

This article first appeared in the Non-League Paper on Sunday November 6, 2016