Like so many organisations in the charity sector Watford FC’s Community Sports & Education Trust was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Both its income and ability to deliver programmes and activities suffered considerably. Although this difficult period is not over yet, Rob Smith is optimistic about the Trust’s future and believes it is well placed to meet some of the challenges that may yet to fully develop out of the Covid-19 crisis.

The Hornets’ response to the pandemic has gained widespread recognition after the club opened its doors to provide a sanctuary for NHS staff and keyworkers and gave over Vicarage Road Stadium to provide facilities to help the fight against the virus.

The Trust, which was established in 2004 out of the Football in the Community and is responsible for 'engaging with our communities through sport, physical activity and learning on behalf of Watford Football Club', played its part in that considerable effort, but staff also demonstrated their proactiveness and innovative qualities to continue to help the community in other ways during lockdown as this graphic illustrates.

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Community director Rob Smith is “immensely proud” of the way the Trust’s staff reacted to these challenges and said: “There were some things that had to stop because they were reliant on face-to-face engagement, but there were others where they were able to think about online delivery and making sure we were able to maintain that level of engagement.

“What we tried to do was keep as much delivery going as we could while abiding by the guidelines and restrictions. We tried to find creative ways of making sure our initiatives kept going and that as many of our beneficiaries could keep that engagement because we all know it’s been a challenging time around people’s mental wellbeing and not becoming too isolated and lonely.”

Rob estimates the pandemic cost the Trust around ten per cent of its annual income from April to June and projects this amount could rise to as much as 25 per cent by the end of September.

Describing the impact as “pretty significant”, he explained: “We set out budget for the new year starting July 1, but we’ve been pretty prudent in terms of July, August and September because of what we encountered April through to June, we couldn’t make any assumptions that the world would be hugely different.

“Although things have been a bit more relaxed we had to take the view that we’re going to be easing back, the old normal won’t really exist.”

The financial cost of the pandemic has also been compounded by Watford’s relegation from the Premier League.

Rob said: “It’s certainly not helped, it’s made things much more challenging on top of the existing difficulties. But it goes with the nature of the industry and what we do is impacted by what happens on the pitch.

“We’re self-financing but we get absolutely fantastic support from the club in a whole range of ways through ticketing, player support, access to club staff, office space, but dropping out of the Premier League does affect the funding streams that we’re able to access. So straight away there is a financial implication for us but we are aware of that so what we make sure is we’re not completely reliant on Premier League funding.

“That’s probably about a third of our turnover, so we’ve tried over the years to diversify our revenue streams so we can try and remain sustainable even during difficult periods.”

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It may be a difficult time but the community director, who will have been at Vicarage Road 24 years in November, believes the adaptability and creativity Trust staff have shown augurs well for the future, as does a new strategy implemented at the start of this year.

He said: “We set a new three-year strategy in January and at the heart of that are a number of areas focusing around issues such as mental wellbeing because we know that is a rising issue in the society.

“We’re looking at employability, development, life skills for predominantly young people but also older people, and another area of the strategy is around trying to reduce isolation and loneliness.

“It feels as though some of the issues that are coming out of the whole pandemic and some of the challenges that may emerge even greater moving forward as a result of this, we feel as though our strategy is kind of aligned to that.

“We’re not going off and doing things that are so far removed from some of the issues and difficulties are going to be for people, so in a strange way it’s thrown up some of the things that we were really passionate in trying to help address and make our contribution towards.”

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Rob is also acutely aware of the responsibility of continuing the legacy that saw Watford become widely recognised as the first family club thanks to the pioneering work of Graham Taylor in the 1980s.

“We’ve got very positive staff at club and in the Trust,” he said. “We recently spoke as staff and we took the view that in adversity lies opportunity. We have to be part of the solution.

“We spoke about problem solving, how we can come together and use the creativity and the innovation and the ideas that we’ve got as a group to try and help affect change in a positive way and make our contribution. We recognise we have a role to play.

“One of our commitments or promises is promoting the club’s family and community values that were instilled in the Elton John and Graham Taylor era and that will always remain at the core of what the Trust does.

“We believe it’s our duty to drive that forward and I guess you could argue even more so when things are stacked against us, we definitely recognise we have a role to play. We have a duty to serve the communities that are local to us.”