Spartans FC – Community Spirit Redefined
Despite being separated this past year, people have been forced to rely on each other more than ever. Callum Watt tells the story of how Spartans FC played their part in helping those around them.
Amid the hardships and devastation of the pandemic, there have been small rays of sunshine, exemplifying the very best in human nature and kindness. While the merits of football have been debated more hotly than ever this week, Spartans FC have quietly been doing their bit in serving the communities around them.
Spartans FC were founded in 1951 and are based in North Edinburgh. They currently play their football in the Lowland League and have enjoyed much success in regional leagues and cups. Their youth section is highly regarded and is considered one of the best in Edinburgh. The now-demolished City Park was Spartans’ home ground from 1951 until 2008 when they moved across the road to a new, purpose-built facility – Ainslie Park. The new ground consists of a 3000-capacity stadium, an adjacent full-size youth pitch, and a clubhouse with multiple changing rooms, function suites and catering facilities. However, the move 13 years ago was only part of a wider development Spartans were undertaking. With Ainslie Park now acting as a community hub for the residents of North Edinburgh, 2008 also saw the birth of the Spartans Community Football Academy.
I spoke to Dougie Samuel, Spartans FC first team manager and CEO of Spartans CFA, and as he puts it, “There are connections throughout the Spartans Family, which consists of our Youth Teams, Adult teams, and the Academy. The academy is the charitable arm of the football club.”
In normal times, Spartans CFA offers many young people the opportunity to take part in volunteering activities, football coaching, or use the general hangout space. They work with local schools to support disadvantaged children living in Pilton, Granton and Muirhouse, and many kids find Alternative Schooling an effective way to obtain traditional qualifications outwith the normal school environment. An array of different community-based, social impact programmes also take place at the Academy, aimed at making local youngsters feel supported and keeping them out of trouble. The close connections throughout Spartans as a whole are felt due to the support the Academy receives from the wider football club – many people donate Christmas presents, Easter Eggs, or even money to help with current appeals and initiatives.
When Coronavirus struck last March, as with almost everything else, Spartans’ Academy work ground to a halt – youth football coaching was postponed, Alternative Schooling was closed, and matchday volunteering was stopped. As the reality facing us all began to sink in, Dougie Samuel and the Spartans CFA asked themselves, ‘how can we help local people in a meaningful and relevant way?’
Samuel said, “very quickly, thanks to the kindness and support from various partners, we identified a need and a role to help tackle food insecurity which had heightened on the back of the pandemic. We transformed our business in no time to become a food distribution hub for the local community.”
While most people were on furlough, binge watching Netflix or shaving their hair off, the Spartans Academy and their army of dedicated volunteers were out in North Edinburgh supporting the community with food parcels. Many families were on their knees and struggling to stay afloat thanks to the pandemic, so the Academy set out to effectively operate a mobile foodbank. However, as we know all too well by now, everything is made significantly more challenging with the added factor of social distancing.
“The biggest challenge was the distribution of the food parcels due to the sheer volume of items being donated and ensuring the safety of our volunteers. In the early days we delivered training sessions, and we also provided our volunteers with PPE.”
The large-scale operation ran from mid-March to mid-August, and in this time, Spartans delivered an incredible 83,134 food parcels to the people of North Edinburgh – 75,471 packed lunches, 3,740 ready meals, and 3,080 one-day packs. Nearly 100,000 acts of kindness in six months carried out entirely by 80 volunteers is an amazing feat but not surprising based on the community-first culture which radiates throughout Spartans and is felt by anyone who visits Ainslie Park.
On those who helped carry out these acts, Samuel commented, “The Spartans Family is built on a community of volunteers. Quite simply we would not be able to create the level of social return we do without the generosity of hundreds of volunteers who give up their time to serve and help others.”
Spartans FC and CFA have always had close ties with the local community. North Edinburgh may not be the wealthiest area in the capital, but you would be hard-pressed to find a more welcoming set of neighbourhoods. The food parcels delivered by Spartans throughout the pandemic were absolutely vital. With the closure of schools, parents were put under pressure to home-school their children whilst also working all day from home. Some families were even less fortunate in that parents lost their jobs and a wage, meaning putting meals on the table became a very real struggle. The commendable work by Spartans and their restaurant partners helped ease this stress on struggling families, and reduced worry in what was already an incredibly uncertain time.
“In such difficult and challenging times of uncertainty, simply being there for others had incredible value. People know we are here to help and will do all we can to play our small part in helping people from all ages and from all backgrounds to get through these tough times.”
This quality of Spartans being there for the community gave, and continues to give, many families peace-of-mind that, regardless of the financial hardship they may find themselves in, help is at hand and a good meal is never far away.
One North Edinburgh resident supported by Spartans’ food parcels said, “They’re truly amazing – they’ve been a really, really big help.”
Another, Shirley Johnston, who had been shielding, told a Spartans CFA video, “I know I’m guaranteed that conversation – it makes you believe that you’re still worth something.”
Aside from the food parcel deliveries, and perhaps more like the work Spartans CFA are used to doing, their work throughout the pandemic had great social impact. Loneliness was an increasing problem as the lockdown continued and social interaction remained minimal. Where elderly residents may have met up on a Saturday to watch Spartans at Ainslie Park, the prolonged cancellation of football prevented this from happening.
“Of course, we can quantify the large volumes of food donated and delivered, or clothing purchased to support local low-income families, however, perhaps the biggest positive impact has been to help create and maintain relationships, to have created opportunities for people to connect and take comfort from brief conversations and acts of kindness,” said Samuel.
The large-scale food parcel delivery scheme ran from March to August 2020, but Spartans CFA have not stopped. Although things have scaled down, the Academy continues to support families in the local community who have been impacted by the pandemic and are now partnering with local schools as pupils return.
“We continue to support around 40 local families every weekend with the provision of seven meals for everyone in the household, a project made possible thanks to the support of Baillie Gifford. We have also continued to support local primary schools and organisations with packed lunches and cakes, thanks to the support of Walter Scott. Lastly, we have supported the new local pantry network with stock donations.”
As the pandemic (hopefully) comes to an end, Spartans CFA will be eager to resume their normal social impact work in and around Ainslie Park. However, the economic impact of the last 12 months will be felt for years to come, and Spartans have demonstrated that they will be there to help whenever required. Questions may be asked, though, about whether the local council/government are doing enough to combat the social and economic issues felt by members of North Edinburgh’s community. Some may argue that it is wrong to rely on the goodwill of a football club.
On this very point, Dougie Samuel comments, “As a key community anchor organisation, we have a duty and responsibility to play our part in tackling social issues, where we can and bring real value. Helping people sits at the very heart of who we are, it’s why we exist.
“Sport is a fantastic engagement tool which can bring people together and deliver a wide range of social benefits. Physical activity has a key part to play in tackling the many health issues we face at a local and national level – both physical and mental health.
“It’s up to everyone who can and has a part to play, to work together to find ways to ensure appropriate levels of funding are invested into our sporting infrastructure and landscape, however, it’s also key for monies to be invested in the most relevant and beneficial way.”
We regularly hear about how football clubs are trying to “engage with their community” and become “more than just a club you watch on a Saturday”. However, these claims are often baseless and do not progress very far beyond a player visiting a local boys club. Spartans, on the other hand, have truly redefined what it means to be a community football club. The unique set-up of the ‘Spartans Family’ means that the close-knit, community feel starts from within and extends outwards into the community. Their base at Ainslie Park is now a staple of North Edinburgh, and their charitable work benefits thousands.
Prior to the pandemic, Spartans’ social work and volunteering opportunities were, naturally, often football related – engaging young people in their community through sport. I have been to Ainslie Park many times to watch Spartans play, and the Academy volunteers behind the café counter have always been great. They quickly adapted their work as COVID took hold and have simply been a lifeline for many – football fans and non-fans alike. As we begin to re-emerge from lockdowns and restrictions, and Spartans begin to resume their usual initiatives, football clubs across the country should take a leaf out of Spartans’ book and step up their community engagement. Involving the surrounding neighbourhoods in your operations can only be a good thing and the community spirit generated by helping others, to put it bluntly, saves lives.