In 2000, Roy Keane, then captain of Manchester United, famously lambasted the club’s fans for their poor support during a match against Dynamo Kiev. His anger was particularly directed at the ‘men in suits’ up in the corporate seats who ‘…can’t even spell football let alone understand it.’ He nicknamed them the ‘prawn sandwich brigade’ and the phrase has stuck ever since. Well, there were plenty of men (and women) in suits in the Revell Ward Suite at the John Smith’s Stadium on Thursday but they were as far from the ‘prawn sandwich brigade’ as Tring is from the sea. They weren’t there to freeload, they were there to witness Dean Hoyle, the chair (some might say saviour) of Huddersfield Town, re-launch the fabulous initiative which is the Town Foundation.
The Town Foundation is the charity arm of the club. Many clubs have similar foundations and do tremendous work. It’s a shame that side of what football clubs do isn’t given more credit in the media.
I became involved in the Town Foundation in 2012, soon after its inception and quite by accident. A follower on Twitter alerted Sean Jarvis, the commercial director at the club, that I was a Town fan. I was invited to meet Sean and I was impressed by this approachable guy who was as happy to discuss this new venture with a mid-list children’s author as he was with the movers-and-shakers from commerce and industry. I was impressed, too, that the whole purpose of the Foundation was principally to help children from socially deprived areas by providing Breakfast Clubs and other schemes such as reading diaries. Reading diaries – I almost swooned! But that’s what makes Huddersfield Town so special – they know what’s important. I was honoured to be invited to become a patron of the Town Foundation in 2013, alongside such luminaries as Ed Clancy and Andrew Gale. It has been my pleasure to visit some of the schools involved on World Book Days and during school holidays. The last one I did was great fun – a creative writing workshop on a ghost train at Halloween.
Anyway, such a huge undertaking needs financing and publicity so of course big businesses and major organisations were at the re-launch on Thursday but so were teachers and headteachers, so were people like Wendy Marsden, who runs the Kid’s Café at Lowehouses from a care-worn church hall. Far from being just another corporate ‘do’, there were people there with stories to tell and stories, as we all know, are what makes us human.
Sean Jarvis was MC for the event. Sean talked about key moments in the club’s recent history that had led to this day: the centenary in 2008, the new chairman (Hoyle in 2009), the dramatic play-off final at Wembley in 2012 and the match against Barnsley in 2013 that kept us in the Championship. With each listing my smile grew wider as memories flashed through my head. I remembered walking down Wembley Way alongside thousands of other Town fans, chanting that earworm chant as passers-by looked on, bemused. And the Barnsley match – yes, I was at that one, too. I’d never experienced anything like it and I’ve been going to matches since 1982. It was the last match of the season and Town, alongside Barnsley, Peterborough, and Fulham, were all statistically eligible for the drop. Everything depended on picking up points and other teams losing them and, as fate would have it, we were playing Barnsley at home. Check out this link for how events unfolded but the last two minutes of the match when play almost stopped, with players gently tapped the ball from one to the other without any intention of scoring, were surreal and endeared me to Barnsley ever since. I’m sure Posh fans feel the same…
So anyway, it was all good stuff from Sean and then came the guest speaker, the Mayor of Kirklees no less. ‘Old School’ is what probably describes Clr Jim Dodds best; tall and imposing with a shock of white hair, he talked about growing up in Newcastle and how his heroes had all been footballers such as Len White. He talked about how, when a club does well, the whole town feels good and that had everyone nodding. It’s true, too. I know that local newspapers’ sales rocket when the local team is having a good run – success has a knock-on effect. A huge part of keeping that momentum going, the mayor continued, was getting footballers out into the community and meeting people but especially meeting children. ‘Let’s help them get reading again,’ he added, ‘…children don’t read enough.’ I could have hugged him.
He was followed by Dean Hoyle. This was a first for me, seeing Dean Hoyle only yards away. I had that same feeling I get when I’m appearing at literary festivals and I am in the green room with highly esteemed authors such as Neil Gaiman or when I served on the management committee on the Society of Authors and shared a table with Sarah Waters and Anna Sebba. I think it’s called imposter syndrome – that feeling of being somewhere you shouldn’t be because you’re not worthy and out of your depth. Still, there I was and keen to hear what the founder of the charity had to say.
Unlike his commercial director, our chairman looks less happy in a suit. He looks, in fact, as if he’d rather be on a factory floor with his shirt sleeves rolled up, discussing production, or out on the training fields watching his dynamic head coach, David Wagner, put the players through their paces. But he’s here in the Revell Ward Suite and he has a job to do and when he is called to speak, he approaches the podium with confidence. Hoyle doesn’t have the steely physical presence of the mayor but what he does have is belief. ‘Believe’ has long been a motto of Town’s and Dean Hoyle believes in the club and the Foundation. That belief in the importance of charity work, he revealed, stems from an encounter he and his wife Janet had when meeting the headteacher of a primary school not far from the Leeds Road training ground. The headteacher told them of a boy who had been abandoned by his parents and whose background and situation were heartrending. The encounter, less than three miles from where the Hoyles lived, shook them both. They were determined to do something to help, not just that particular child, but other children like him. ‘There are problems on our doorstep,’ Hoyle told us, his face grave and earnest. He’s absolutely right. The Metropolitan Borough of Kirklees, of which Huddersfield is the largest town but also includes many smaller, old woollen and textile mill towns like Batley and Dewsbury, as well as more rural settlements such as Denby Dale, was ranked 67th out of almost 400 in the last survey of Britain’s poorest areas. In 2013, unemployment in Huddersfield among men was over 9.2% compared to nearby Penistone at 3.6%. Behind those statistics are households struggling to make ends meet and within those households are children suffering as a result. The National Literacy Trust has long established a link between poverty and literacy. Basically, the more literate a child is, the more their chances of escaping the poverty trap. Yet with public services under threat and many Kirklees libraries being closed, these avenues out of deprivation are being shut off to those who need them the most. That’s why I was glad when Dean Grice and Julian Winter, key figures in Hoyle’s team, explained why they had included education as one of the four new ‘goals’ and had partnered with Kirklees College. The other goals are sports, inclusion and health. They’re all linked. They’re all crucial. ‘We (Huddersfield Town) are the biggest brand in Huddersfield. We have a duty to give back,’ Hoyle said.
At the end of the session there were no questions from the floor but one hand was raised. ‘I don’t have a question, the speaker said, who, it transpired, was the headteacher at the school where it had all begun. ‘I just want to bring you up to date. I was there when we talked about that boy and I just want to tell you that thanks to your support he’s doing well. He’s gone on to better things.’ The headteacher didn’t gush. He didn’t elaborate or start heaping praise and platitudes on the panel at the front. He left it at that. Nobody clapped or whooped – we’re Yorkshire, remember – but we felt it: that moment when your eyes prickle because you’ve heard and witnessed something real and important.
Afterwards I talked to Andy Booth, the club’s popular ambassador who, along with fundraiser Julie Sheffield, does so much of the leg work helping to run the Foundation and put all the initiatives into place. ‘What I like, ‘I told him, ‘is that unlike other clubs we don’t just make the players go out and rock up for events – it’s a joint effort – everyone’s involved.’
‘Oh, but they do go out,’ Andy replied. ‘This is the best squad ever for being willing to meet the public and go the extra mile. Especially the German lads – it’s part of their culture.’
I left feeling so inspired. What a cause. What a club. Maybe we should invite Roy Keane to have a look round. I’ll bring the sandwiches.
To donate to the Town Foundation or find out more click here.