With the new football season underway, Chris Lowes – Head of Oxford United in the Community – discusses how football can inspire positive change in Oxfordshire’s communities.
A new football season is always met with great anticipation as supporters of clubs across the country at all levels unite with the same excitement and hope of a positive year.
It’s easy to define the success of a club or sport by results. But football and sport mean so much more than what happens each Saturday afternoon.
Football is about using the power of our great game to inspire happier, healthier and better-connected communities via strong partnerships, outreach and engagement.
The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged our ability to engage with children, teenagers, young adults, adults and elderly members of our community.
We have used the pandemic to not only ramp up our scale of engagement across Oxfordshire, but also plan how we can help provide every person living in the county with a positive connection with the football club.
Spearheading our engagement strategy is our new vision – ‘Oxfordshire – A Community United’. In the next three years, we will target those aged ‘2 to 92’ via a ‘Hub and Spoke’ operational structure which will connect 15 of Oxfordshire’s towns with the United badge.
This strategy has facilitated the formation of strong community partnerships with Oxfordshire FA, Active Oxfordshire, Oxfordshire Youth, Oxfordshire Mind, ARCh Oxfordshire and Aspire Oxfordshire.
We’ve also partnered with Easington Sports FC after Banbury was selected as our pilot town thanks to funding from the Step Change Fund.
Amid this, our popular Soccer Schools camps have been able to continue under strict COVID-19 guidelines and our first National Citizen Service (NCS) programmes have been delivered to young people.
Loneliness has been an important issue to tackle also. Through Manor Club Extra videos, virtual coffee mornings and matchday watch-a-longs we have connected older supporters at risk of isolation and loneliness via the EFL Trust’s ‘Tackling Loneliness Together’ campaign.
Fortunately, we appear to have passed the stage where Zoom calls with family, baking copious amounts of banana bread and isolating in our own homes is considered normal.
That was brought home to us during England’s outstanding run in the European Championships which culminated in penalty shoot-out heartache against Italy.
To see tens of thousands of people at Wembley supporting our country in one of football’s great tournaments was incredibly refreshing.
The achievements of Gareth Southgate and the England squad will inspire a generation. Already, we are seeing participants on our summer holiday courses wearing their England and Oxford United kits with great pride.
Of course, it wasn’t the result we all dreamed for. But the legacy England’s players leave behind will last a lifetime. That’s how sport can impact people from the highest level.
But its in the foundation stages where football can make a real difference. Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Pickford and Harry Maguire – at some point in their childhood and careers they would’ve engaged with programmes similar to what we deliver.
This underlines the importance of our work and why results should never define the impact of sport on people and the wider community.
So, a new season full of promise and hope. But what to expect from Oxford United in the Community?
Already, this summer has seen us introduce two valuable new programmes open to young refugees and women aged 16 to 30.
We must thank Asylum Welcome and Refugee Resource for choosing to partner with ourselves and delivering football-based activities to 25 refugees each week. The sessions will focus on the development of valuable life skills such as teamwork and communication.
And as part of our commitment to broadening our scale of programmes in Oxfordshire’s towns, we also run supportive football activity sessions with mental health support for women aged 16 to 30.
The sessions take place at Easington Sports Football Club in Banbury each Friday between 10am and midday.
We are also tackling youth re-offending among people in Oxfordshire via DIVERT in partnership with Thames Valley Violent Reduction Unit.
All these programmes and more will be supported by our familiar holiday, skills and development centre courses which help people develop their technical and tactical football skills in a fun and supportive environment.
Everyone at Oxford United in the Community wishes Karl Robinson and the first-team squad the very best of luck this season. Come on you Yellows!
Chris Lowes, Head of Oxford United in the Community.