Proving football is more than just a game

EFL Trust is a charity which advises, supports and represents a network of 72 charities, each one associated with an English Football League (EFL) professional football club. Adrian Bradley, Head of Health and Wellbeing at the EFL Trust explains how football is using its reach into communities to support those at risk of health inequalities.

One in five people who pay to attend a live sports event in this country do so by watching an EFL match – about 18 million attendances each season. Over 36 million people live within 10 miles of a stadium, a catchment that includes more than 70% of all universal credit claimants.

EFL clubs are key elements of civic pride, heritage and identity and, together with their charities, are important anchor institutions in their communities.

EFL made a commitment to tackling health inequalities in our 2019 strategy because we know that if you live within our catchment you are more likely to be inactive, overweight or obese, to enjoy fewer years in good health, and to die prematurely from a preventable condition.

We use the power of the ‘club badge’ and the affinity people have with their team, to deliver a wide range of health and wellbeing services. Our charities engage people within the existing fan base but also reach out to people who do not share our passion for football.

We were delighted to recently welcome Dr Bola Owolabi, Director – Health Inequalities Improvement from NHS England and NHS Improvement to show her just a small sample of the work we do and explain how it connects to the Core20PLUS5 agenda.

We are passionate advocates for the importance of physical activity, but we go beyond that. We believe in the ‘social cure’. Social groups give us meaning, purpose and belonging, are an important source of support, and motivate us to adopt behaviours that impact on our health and wellbeing.

None of this means we expect people to come to us, to walk across our threshold. We go to them. We engage them in ways that suit them, on their terms, and in settings they are comfortable in.

That is the story of the women Bola came to meet in Preston. Our colleagues at Preston North End Community and Education Trust (PNECT) have demonstrated cultural and religious sensitivity over an extended period to work with the local Sahara Centre; a voluntary organisation working predominately for the benefit of black and minority ethnic women and men. Bola attended a Bollywood dancing themed activity session hosted by PNECT to support the long term lifestyle change goals for some of the Muslim women the centre supports.

Across our network we have examples of providing support to cancer patients, testing for hypertension, and supporting people living with mental illness. Bola also visited a weekly service in Blackpool which offers recreational football and peer support for adults experiencing mental health concerns.

There are many examples of our work contributing to the Core20PLUS5 agenda. We are prioritising cardio-vascular disease prevention. We know that in many of our communities drinking, smoking and poor diet are significant risk factors. FIT FANS uses interest in football to attract adults aged 35-65 to a free12-week healthy lifestyle programme delivered at the football club stadium. The programme offers guidance and support on eating, drinking, sleeping and being more active in daily life.

The pandemic only highlighted how important our role is. We delivered more than a million food parcels and medicines at the height of the pandemic to the most vulnerable, and our Extra Time Hubs offered support to older people often experiencing anxiety, stress, fear, frustration, and loneliness accentuated by COVID-19.

We are ideally suited to being part of the social prescribing movement across the country and are working closely with the National Academy for Social Prescribing. We will only fully utilise the assets we have in our communities if we work together.  We welcome the reimagining of how the NHS and local government can work with non-traditional partners in the voluntary sector and look forward with optimism to playing our part in reducing the disparities in health outcomes for people living in our communities.

Adrian Bradley

Adrian Bradley is Head of Health and Wellbeing at the EFL Trust – the national charity that represents, advises and supports 72 charities linked to professional football clubs across England and Wales.

Adrian is responsible for a wide ranging public health offer including an expanding portfolio of person-centred support services in non-clinical settings designed to encourage healthy choices and self-management of conditions. These include health education in primary schools, adult testing and screening programmes, cancer recovery services, dementia support groups, drug and alcohol recovery services, adult mental health support groups, services tackling chronic loneliness in older people, the FIT FANS adult weight management programme, and Extra Time Hubs – a shared interest community of people in their retirement who meet on a weekly basis to socialise and to do the things they enjoy.

He has over 25 years’ experience in local government and the charity sector. Prior to joining EFL Trust in 2016 he held senior roles as Director of Strategy for the Child Migrants Trust and at Alzheimer’s Society where he was National Lead for Young Onset Dementia.