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Adam Newson sits down with Rob Smith of Watford's Community Sports and Education Trust to discuss their work in the community
It started with “one person in a broom cupboard with a bag of footballs”. But then don’t the best ideas always have the humblest of beginnings?
You start with a few people – or just the one will suffice – huge dreams, a simple aim of becoming an inspirational force and a shared belief in Watford FC’s continued pioneering ethos of a ‘family friendly’ football club.
And then after years of hard graft, well won triumphs, inevitable setbacks and a lot of people busting a gut to make things work it seamlessly falls into place. What’s to boast about?
After what Watford FC’s independently run and proudly proactive Community Sports and Education Trust has achieved in a decade, quite a lot to be frank.
The charity has motivated youngsters to take up not only football but sports such as basketball and boxing; it’s kick-started projects involving the homeless and those denied the chance to prove themselves; it’s striven to ensure that those at Vicarage Road, from first-team players to the fans, know where the club’s grass-roots lay. It’s shaped attitudes, fostered ambitions and consistently tried to set new targets. But its over-riding philosophy has always been to serve the community.
Such determination and commitment has left that lone soul in a broom cupboard now able to call on nearly 80 full, part-time and casual coaching staff as well as countless unpaid volunteers to try to achieve the Trust’s increasingly-ambitious goals.
It’s community director Rob Smith said: “It’s in Watford’s DNA that it does a lot of work in the community.
"Through the trust it’s our duty to maintain that. It’s about the difference we’re making. We are not a charity that saves lives. But we like to see ourselves as one that can change lives.”
But it is not easy to do that. Like any charity the Trust is always in need of funding. It requires £1.5m a year just to continue running its 30 projects.
That may not sound like a large total in the cash-rich football world but, as Smith understands, while the Trust is under the “Watford FC umbrella’ the football club are not expected to finance the charity”.
“We’re self financing,” Smith said. “We are integral to the club and receive great backing from the club but in terms of how we generate our money to operate, like most charities it is through funding, fundraising, sponsorship and donations. We also receive some income from certain projects that we run.
“Quite often the perception is we coach kid’s football, so why would we need the money? We are attached to a professional football club and there’s always money around. The reality of that is very different. It’s important we’re sustainable and are not a cost to the football club.”
The Trust’s roots can be traced back almost 25 years to The Football in the Community programme. It’s that which set the framework for the Trust.
“It has developed immensely. We started with one person in a broom cupboard in the stadium with a bag of footballs.
“That was the very, very early days but we have developed and used football to engage people and we’re trying to put something back into the local community.
“But like any charity we need to attract enough funding and sponsorship to keep our projects alive and also to expand and improve them.
“In the next few years we hope to get the Trust in a stronger financial position so our projects are never at risk.”
Those projects are far reaching. From youth football coaching, disability sports, women’s football, education and social programmes and several other projects, Smith estimates 150,000 people a year participate in one of the 10,000 sessions run by the Trust.
It’s a staggering number but no matter the project, the aim remains the same – make a difference and change lives.
“Football is what we’re about but the Watford badge has real power and attraction,” Smith explained.
“I don’t think we could proclaim to be a community club if we don’t offer opportunities and initiatives for all aspects in the community.
“We hope we can make a difference to people if they need to get back on the right track if they’ve made poor decisions or are at risk of making bad decisions.”
And what better way to inspire people, especially children, than to give them the chance to meet their Watford heroes.
It’s written into the Hornets’ player’s contracts that they must participate in community events.
Smith admitted several of the players are surprised at the depth of work undertaken by the Trust but praised their eagerness when at events.
“A few of the players are surprised when it’s not just going and coaching football,” Smith said.
“They won’t necessarily understand what the initiative or event is about but once they’re there they get into it and really enjoy themselves.
“There has been a slight change in the last couple of years because we have had to make some of the players more aware of the work we do.
“They may not have had similar types of programmes in countries they’ve played in before and it’s a slightly different model in the UK.
“But we had an event where a few players went down and got involved in a music project and that opened their eyes as to what the club stands for and how it values the community.”
That community is vital to Watford. With the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and a host of other clubs just a Tube journey away, it’s vital the Hornets are able to maintain the support of the town.
Smith believes the Trust plays a key role in doing so. He said: “We have a lot of clubs on our doorstep and I think that perhaps means we have to do things a little bit differently here.
“If we become complacent and just believe we’ll attract fans then that’s not right.
“I like to think people support us because it’s a warm club and it’s a club that belongs to the town. Hopefully that will always remain the case.”
Smith has worked at Watford for 18 years. He grew up in Hemel Hempstead and has a strong affinity with the community and the club.
He said one of his fondest memories from his time with the Hornets is seeing people who’ve participated in projects working for the club and giving back to the community.
Ten years on from its creation the Community Sports and Education Trust has helped countless people.
But what about the next decade? “That’s difficult to say,” Smith replied.
“I see myself in a very fortunate position because I am able to work within a football club that I am very passionate about and a club that believes in putting back into its local community.
“If you’re able to make a difference and leave the place in a better position than where you started then you’ve done your bit.
“I’m only looking after the Trust until the next person comes in. So it’s important for me to see it develop and make sure it represents what the club is about.
“Then the next person who comes in can take it on to bigger and better things.”
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