You might describe it as ‘from cupboard to charity via community’.

The story that has taken what was the Watford FC Football in the Community Scheme in 1992/93 to the Watford FC Community Sports and Education Trust 30 years later is one of an altruistic belief that any football club should be the heartbeat of its community.

Fortunately for Watford, there just happened to be a certain Graham Taylor in charge at Vicarage Road, a pioneer and visionary of how club and community should intertwine, so much so that he insisted his players live within an agreed distance of the town and wrote a set number of community appearances and events into their contracts.

That often meant seeing Hornets heroes pushing over piles of pennies in a social club, cutting the ribbon at a school fete or handing out the trophies at a five-a-side.

Alongside that, Watford also wanted to provide for the community and use football as a way of reaching out to people, and also bring them into Vicarage Road.

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The club’s Football in the Community Scheme was the forerunner to the Trust of today, and that first came into existence during the 1992/93 football season.

Thirty years later, and the Trust now employs some 60 full and part-time staff, with a further 100 casual workers, who combine to deliver courses and projects that can touch more than 15,000 people in a year.

One man who has seen 26 years of that work is Watford FC’s Community Director Rob Smith.

“When I joined the Watford FC Football in the Community scheme in November 1996, it was still very much in its infancy,” he said.

“It had first been created in 1992 by John McDermott, then Jimmy Gilligan had a period working in this area before Kirk Wheeler came in, and it was his advert for an assistant that I applied for.

“I was interviewed by the great Graham Taylor, and I was fortunate enough to get the job.”

Watford Observer: The Trust helping youngsters.The Trust helping youngsters. (Image: Watford FC Community Trust)

The Trust team now have their own offices at the Rookery End of Vicarage Road stadium, a far cry from the working environment Wheeler and Smith embraced.

“We were working back then in what was really a broom cupboard! It was just the two of us, with a desk each and a phone that we shared,” Smith laughed.

“In the late 90s, we were predominantly using football as a positive tool and a way to engage people. It was very football based and the sort of activities we were organising were holiday coaching courses for children, after-school clubs and generally the provision of football-based events that focussed very much on participation.

“It was taking the Watford FC message and using football as a vehicle to go into places that might not otherwise have the opportunity to participate.

“We also did some work at the stadium, and anyone who was at matches in those days will probably remember the legendary half-time penalty shoot-outs with guests from the Balmoral Day Centre.

“The reliance was very much on casual coaches to deliver the courses, and that developed over time. The power of a good professional football club like Watford is very strong, and we attracted some very good coaches which enabled us to expand.”

That expansion saw the community scheme move from football coaching and courses to start to tackle more societal issues.

“When we moved on to offer more than just football provision, we started to be contacted by third-party bodies who wanted to work with us: the housing association, the Police, the local authority,” said Smith.

“They had issues they wanted to address like anti-social behaviour, and they wanted to ask for our help to tackle them.

“It was a combination of us being proactive, but also other organisations seeing what we were doing, and how well we were doing it, and wanting to work with us.

“We started to recognise very good opportunities, and the fact the club had such a very strong and trusted community presence, as well as the family ethos that came from Graham and Sir Elton John, meant we were seen as a trusted partner to work with.

“It was a snowball effect. We worked with more different people, we reached a wider audience and we got more new opportunities which enabled us to continue to expand.”

Watford Observer: Rob at work in the dome at the club's training ground.Rob at work in the dome at the club's training ground. (Image: Watford FC Community Trust)

Back then there was a ‘chicken and egg’ situation: the scheme wanted to expand, but that cost money. But they knew if they could expand, it would help generate more revenue with which to grow.

“One of the big plus points of expanding our work into different areas was that we had the chance to gain additional funding,” Smith explained.

“We had sponsors who wanted to help us from quite early on, and that then allowed us to look at hiring additional staff to enable even more growth.

“It was around then that we started to have programmes that moved outside of just football and into what you might call ‘social value’ projects. Things like addressing the need to get young people into positive activities in their spare time, rather than hanging around on the streets.

“I remember programmes like ‘Safer Neighbourhood’ and ‘Positive Futures’. You can tell just by the name that the focus was slightly different and not just on football provision.

“It was more using football as a vehicle or a trojan horse to enable us to get into areas and deal with issues. After all, we are a football club and football is at the heart of what we do. But we were able to broaden out what we did.

“We started to look at ways of using physical activity generally to help with mental wellbeing, physical health and so on.”

It was key to the people delivering the projects that they never lost sight of their greatest asset.

“Still today football is at the core of what we do, whether that is for helping people with their mental health, or increasing their football skills,” Smith said.

“We are known as a football club and that might be the reason why organisations and groups want to work with us, and once they’ve met us they see that we can offer football coaching but we can also help with health, wellbeing, inclusion, safety and so on.

“Why wouldn’t a football club, that can have such a broad impact, want to do that? We can help individuals, groups and the wider community in many ways, and you’d have to ask why you wouldn’t want to do that if you had the chance.”

Watford Observer: Participants in one of the Trust's Shape Up sessions.Participants in one of the Trust's Shape Up sessions. (Image: Watford FC Community Trust)

By that time, Taylor had left the club but the foundations he had put in place were so solid that growth followed naturally.

“I like to think we are still carrying the torch for the vision that Graham Taylor had in terms of working with, and being a part of, the local community,” Smith said with a smile.

“He made sure the players that played for him did an agreed amount of work in the community, and much of that would have been things that were not football related. It was just a great way of cementing the links between Watford Football Club and the community and people around it.

“He was way ahead of his time, a visionary who was thinking and acting years ahead of others.

“Way before community schemes and trusts were ever thought of, Graham was doing the work they do here at Watford.”

Just less than a decade ago came the biggest single change and stride forward.

“The real big step in our evolution was in 2003/4 when we became a registered charity. That was pivotal,” said Smith.

“We moved from what was called Football in the Community into being what we know today as the Watford FC Community Sports and Education Trust.

“Becoming a registered charity means you have to adhere to regulations, have a board of trustees and such like. That was exactly the right thing to do.”

Since then, the work of the Trust has grown exponentially – so much so that Smith cites the breadth of what they do as being the highlight, rather than individual programmes or achievements.

“It’s really difficult to pick out individual programmes that we’re particularly proud of because it’s more about the variety of what we do,” he said.

“We have offered so many diverse programmes that have gone on to be very successful, and also some of the people who have been part of them have been success stories on their own. Many people have ended up being employed by the Trust or very successful in their own field.

“Britt Assombalonga, who signed for the club in January, started his playing career at the Watford FC Academy after being spotted in one of our football development centres.

“There are loads of people who have progressed their careers with us, either by staying here and being promoted or using what they have learned with us to go on and be successful elsewhere.

“We love to see people develop within the Trust, but it’s equally ok if they leave and make the same progress outside of our organisation. Nick Cox, who is Head of Academy at Manchester United, began his career with our Trust.

“There are two areas that are key to us. The people who participate in what we do, our beneficiaries: how can we help them unlock their potential, inspire them and empower them, in whatever area of life they want that to be?

“And then there are the people who work for the Trust: can we help them develop and grow into being the best they can be?

“The target is that everyone who comes into contact with the Trust, be that participants or staff, benefit from their time interacting with us.”

Watford Observer: Rob Smith and Kirk Wheeler in a team photo from the community scheme's early years.Rob Smith and Kirk Wheeler in a team photo from the community scheme's early years. (Image: Watford FC Community Trust)

Smith is very much someone who prefers to let others take the limelight while he beavers away in the background. However, he admits that growth and being consciously competent is something he focusses on.

“We certainly haven’t cracked it yet, and we’re not professing to be perfect at all,” he readily confessed.

“Our culture is all about continuous improvement, and we realise there are always things we can do better.

“It’s essential we take on board feedback, check what we are doing, and reflect upon everything to see where we can tweak things to make improvements.

“That’s the way you have to be. The moment you think you’ve got everything right is the moment you begin to go downhill.

“That continual assessment of what we’re doing and how well we’re doing it has become more a challenge as time has gone on, because we get more and more requests.”

Indeed, such has been the growth of the Trust that they are now in a position where they have to be selective about what they set out to do and which projects and schemes they become involved in.

“Sometimes we can’t do every single thing people ask of us, and that leads to challenging decisions about whether we can help or not,” Smith admitted.

“Is this our area of expertise or are there other organisations better equipped to support?

“We’re working on a new strategy and the dilemma we face is knowing how much impact we can have and deciding where we can make the most difference, in line with that strategy.

“We have to ask ourselves ‘is that what we’re good at?’ Or are there people better placed to support certain causes than us? Do we deliver the piece of work, or do we facilitate it by offering our venues and our support?

“It is a sign of how far we have come in 30 years that we are now in a position to not only deliver work ourselves, but also to be able to provide the facilities for other organisations to do so.”

What are the things the Trust are looking to do as they head into year 31 of their existence?

“Twenty years ago, we’d never have thought we’d have two community hubs. We don’t own them but we run and manage them on long-term leases,” said Smith.

“I’d like to think we can do more of that. Could we potentially open another hub?

“We got the hubs because one of our visions was having a bigger impact, and the idea of having hubs within the community was a key part of that ambition.

“We were already doing a lot of outreach work in the community and at the stadium, but we wanted to see if we could take that a step further and have hubs in areas that need a community facility.

“I don’t take the credit for those hubs. It was a lot of hard work by a number of very good people that led on that project, and we now have two hubs that are ten years old which have had a really positive impact in the communities they serve.

“The blend of the outreach projects we take into communities with the facilities we can provide in the hubs, which are available to hire for other organisations, is really very special.

“I’d also like to see us expand the work we do on health and wellbeing, maybe looking at how we can support cancer charities and organisations, or perhaps bereavement support.”

Watford Observer: Graham Taylor and former mayor of Watford Dorothy Thornhill at the opening of one of the community hubs.Graham Taylor and former mayor of Watford Dorothy Thornhill at the opening of one of the community hubs. (Image: Watford FC Community Sports & Education Trust)

Amid all the expansion, one thing that has been a constant is the link between the Trust and Watford FC.

“The football club has been a massive part of our growth with their support, and it’s been essential in getting us to where we are,” said Smith.

“You can’t ever forget that Watford FC is at the heart of what we do. You have to live and breathe the heritage that the club has, and there is still much more we want to do.

“Our growth has come from a lot of very good people doing a lot of very good and hard work. And all those people and all that work is there as part of the legacy that Graham Taylor left for Watford FC and its community.

“I believe a football club almost has an obligation to work with, help and support its community, and Watford has always had a very special way of meeting that obligation.

“Football clubs all over the country are doing a lot of excellent work, but because of the vision that Graham Taylor had and what he put in place, we all know Watford FC is very special.

“He set the example of having very good people, doing great things for the right reason and always having a positive impact of those they interact with. We are simply carrying the baton on for him.”