We may have recently moved past the 12-month mark since the World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic, but the CEO of Blackpool FC Community Trust is still insisting patience is the key when it comes to re-instating all of the club’s community initiatives over the next few months. ConnectSport reporter Danny Clark spoke to Ashley Hackett to find out why.
Communities across the UK are in urgent need of support now more than ever, and desperate to escape lockdown. Blackpool FC Community Trust is an example of a sport for development charity which appreciates this sentiment as much as any other organisation embedded in its local community across the country.
Nonetheless the Trust’s Chief Executive Ashley Hackett is realistic in admitting that it’s not going to be as simple as just flicking a switch and getting ‘back to normal’ as restrictions are relaxed around sport, physical activity and social mixing, and that further challenges lie in store, beyond lockdown.
“We know that there’s going to be significant mental health ramifications from these lockdowns,” he tells ConnectSport. “There are going to be people that feel really nervous about coming and joining social groups, so we need to build the steps in place for those individuals.
“It might take six months, it might take a couple of years, but if we can be that touchpoint and that link to help them build the courage to come out and engage in sessions, then that’s what we’ve got to work towards.”
The Trust works across three main areas: early years and primary provision, education and employability, and community programmes. Ashley explains: “We strive to give all young people the best start to life in our town, it’s then about trying to enrich as many as we can to flourish and reach their potential. We also look to engage as many people as we can in community activity.”
Across its three main focus areas, the Trust aims to deliver around 50 different projects throughout the town.
“We know that we can have an impact on engaging people into regular physical activity; we know we can help provide them with social opportunities; and we also know that we can have a significant impact on people’s education and opportunities for the future,” says Ashley.
“We are clear where our expertise lies and we know what we can have an effect on. If that isn’t us, then we’ll work with partners to support people.
“We try to stay as strong as we can to these values and beliefs throughout all our provision.”
Despite its focused and well-informed provision, the Trust hasn’t been immune to the financial impact of the latest national lockdown. Ashley explains: “It’s probably had an impact of around £150,000 on us in that period and that’s due to not being able to deliver some of our usual provisions that we would have started in January.
“One example was our FFIT (Football Fans in Training) 12-week weight management programme. We had a big plan post-Christmas, with four cohorts of 30 people all engaged, but that had to stop.”
However, as Ashley goes on to explain, many of the other challenges posed by the latest lockdown have been tackled successfully.
“I’ve got a team that are amazing at adapting and what they’ve done this time is reacted pretty much instantly. The great thing we had with this lockdown is that it wasn’t the first time we were dealing with it, we knew exactly what he had to do.
“Thinking back to the first lockdown, we were looking at this as new. There was no job retention scheme, there was no opportunity for funding. We didn’t really know what the months ahead would bring.
“When we got over the initial ‘here we go again’ feeling; it then became an outlook of ‘look we’ve done this before, we know what we need to do’.”
This was the case as the 67 students enrolled with the Trust’s sports college were all given the support they needed to get back online learning the very next day.
Teachers also delivered laptops to children that couldn’t access one at home, as the Trust quickly adapted its provision to ensure engagement could continue over lockdown.
“We had to find as many different ways as we could to engage people and the team were phenomenal,” Ashley says.
“It’s difficult to describe just how well or how quickly we were able to adapt and diversify our provision.”
One initiative that has particularly flourished during the pandemic has been the ‘Tackling Isolation’ project.
Funded by DCMS and the EFL Trust, the programme works to improve social inclusion and decrease social isolation across 32 local authority areas, including Blackpool.
With a community hub based at the club’s Bloomfield Road Stadium, the Trust offers services such as food parcels, weekly phone calls and doorstep visits to support people living on their own in the area.
“For some individuals this is often the only face they see during the week,” explains Ashley.
“Eight members of our team actually went out on Christmas Day and visited 11 people who we knew wouldn’t see anyone over the festive period, to take them a Christmas present. That’s how amazing our team are.”
The initiative was due to finish at the end of March but, thanks to new funding from Postcode Lottery, has been given the green light to continue for the rest of the season, rebranded as ‘Pool Together’.
Extending the project will have a significant impact in the coming months when restrictions begin to ease, says Ashley.
“There’s always going to be a platform for us to provide this type of work, but the beauty we’re going to have from May and June is we can actually start to support these people to come out of their homes and start to integrate into the community.”
Then it’s a case of ensuring quality provision and sustaining the positive outcomes being generated, explains Ashley. “We could have opened it up and we’d have had thousands of referrals so then it comes back to the question of capacity.
“We’ve had to be really mindful about shaping and developing the provision sensibly and it’s one thing I always try and instil in our staff; let’s walk before we can run.
“Once we can walk, we’ll start to run, and then once we can run, we’ll sprint.... we’re in the position where we’re probably jogging now!”