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When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit the United Kingdom in 2020, not many could’ve predicted its overwhelming impact on the nation’s public and businesses over the two years that followed. Non-league football clubs were plunged into uncertainty just as much. Still, it’s easy for those unattached to say ‘it’s just sports’.
However, the importance of non-league football clubs in local communities can’t be understated. With little funding from elsewhere, their primary source of income is garnered from the support of loyal fans every week.
Covid-19 took that away for a prolonged period, leading to a spike in the risk of clubs going bust across the country. That’s where The National Lottery came in, donating a phenomenal £12.5million to help keep clubs afloat and communities alive.
Non-league football is so much more than the action that unfolds on the pitch at 3pm every Saturday. It’s the heart of hundreds of towns and cities up and down the UK, and presenter and comedian Alex Brooker learnt all about it when he visited National League North club York City on Tuesday.
Brooker was invited to York ahead of the first of two ‘National Lottery Football Weekends’ this Saturday. He was involved in a men’s mental health session, met the people behind ‘Sporting Memories’ and partook in a kid’s football session on the hallowed LNER Stadium turf.
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Speaking exclusively to Express Sport, he introduced two groups he met at York City and how humbling the day was. Brooker said: “It’s been really humbling. This is my first time at York City, and first of all, the setup is incredible for a non-league club. I spent time this morning with different various different schemes that York City are running in the community.
“The first guys I met were from a group called Boot The Blues, and it was a way of men coming together having a kick around obviously, and also talking about their mental health and things like that. And the guys that I spoke to were telling me how much of an important thing it came became for them with the pandemic.
He added: “The other group I met was called Sporting Memories, designed for people to come together and talk about their memories at the football club. But it’s grown into a much bigger social group, and they did Zoom quizzes in lockdown, all fairly elderly people. And they got together, they go on days out, and they have guest speakers come in.
“For a lot of them, it’s the one chance, if you feel isolated, of getting out and speaking to people every week. So you realise that it’s, I don’t want to sound cliche, but it does make you realise that it goes beyond football for people. Because they all got together to talk about their memories at a football club, but then they’ve all become friends.”
Brooker was left impressed with the breadth of schemes York City have in place to serve all age groups in the local community compared to what he received when he was growing up. He continued: “I didn’t realise just how varied the programmes were.
“It makes me realise just how diversified these foundation schemes have become and also how clever and how good they’ve been at adjusting to the difficult circumstances of the pandemic. Now we’re talking about visiting people on their doorstep to chat with them and show them how to set up their Zoom and things like that.
“That’s something that goes far above and beyond, and it becomes a real resource for people and somewhere for people to turn to. It’s been genuinely unbelievable for me to be here because my consumption of football is the Premier League. It’s such a world away from it.
“And I know that obviously, Premier League clubs and Football League clubs do a lot in their communities as well, but I just think for a non-league club to have this amount of different kind of schemes and helping so many different people. With obviously limited funding as well, that’s a big thing.”
The National Lottery has invested more than £5.7billion into grassroots sports since it was established in 1994. And every week, Lottery players help raise £30m for good causes, including grassroots sports, which goes a long in helping clubs like York City provide excellent facilities.
Brooker has stressed the importance of The National Lottery’s continued backing of non-league clubs throughout the pandemic and beyond. “It’s vitally important,” he explained. “You can’t imagine the impact it would have had on a community like this if they’d have lost the football club.
“So many communities are built around football clubs. We can’t be losing football clubs; it’s vitally important. You can’t underestimate just how important [the Covid-19 funding] was. I think it’s great for them, and you look at the setup here especially. This has got everything.
“I know York are in the National League North at the moment, but this has got everything set up to be a proper Football League club and to sustain itself within the Football League. You look at the facilities here; they’re incredible. It’s got bowling next door, golf and things like that, and climbing! All sorts of stuff. It’s blown my mind.”
As part of The National Lottery Football Weekends, 100,000 free tickets are being given away on a ‘Buy One Get One Free’ basis. To thank National Lottery players for their support, they are now being given a chance to watch their local football team for free in March and April.
And with the Premier League away this weekend due to the international break, Brooker has urged fans to go and support their local non-league clubs. He concluded: “I think there’s an importance to do both [watch Premier League and non-league].
“We’ve got the international weekend coming up this week. It’s important you can go along and support your local non-league club. It’s not going to impinge on how much you support your Premier League club. It’s just a different level of football, but we all love the game, and it’s still a way of getting it getting your fix of football.
“And a lot of them they do great offers like ‘Buy One get One Free’ and things like that. These things are a good social event, as well. You should go and support a non-league club, and I’d recommend it to everyone. Because you see, it also helps keep them going. That’s what runs a football club, people coming through the turnstiles, and they can run the schemes they do.”
The National Lottery Football Weekends campaign will make over 100,000 tickets available on a ‘Buy One Get One Free’ basis for National Lottery players for selected matches as a ‘thank you’ for over £12.5million of funding they helped provide to community football clubs during the Covid pandemic. To find out more, visit: www.thenationallotteryfootballweekends.co.uk.
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