Football fans unite to fight poverty in Liverpool
Irish international Jon Walters joins the locals helping to deliver aid to the city’s poor
Fans donate food to a foodbank outside the ground ahead of the Premier League match between Liverpool and Everton at Anfield on December 2nd 2018 in Liverpool. Photograph: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images
It’s a busy mid-Sunday morning in Birkenhead’s Charles Thompson Mission, and Republic of Ireland international Jon Walters is getting to grips with the thorny issue gripping one half of Merseyside these days.
“I grew up an Everton fan,” he says amid the din, “and people ask each other who they would rather see win the league: Manchester City or Liverpool? I’d rather Liverpool win it, to have something good happen for the area.”
The city, he says, “is like no other place in terms of the people sticking together,” and if football divides it, its families and friends, sometimes bitterly, between blues (Everton) and reds (Liverpool) on occasions like last Sunday when the two clubs played each other, it is, he insists, superficial enough stuff really.
“There are a lot of reasons for it politically if you go back in history, but it’s a city that tends to come into its own when the times are hard.”
And times, says Walters, are hard right now
Walters sits at a corner table almost unnoticed as the centre’s other clients come, eat, chat and go
All about him, there is evidence of that. Every Sunday around 100 people from the surrounding area come to the mission, based in a slightly dilapidated building that first opened its doors to the area’s poor in 1892, to be served a hot breakfast and avail of more occasional services like free haircuts.
The initiative is a joint effort between local volunteer community worker Dave Fitzpatrick (blue) and Fans Supporting Foodbanks (FSF), a group started and run by supporters of both of the city’s biggest clubs. It is funded in large part by Carpenters, a big legal services firm owned by John Carpenter and his Dublin born wife, Donna Scully (both Red).
Walters, who was born in the Merseyside village of Moreton and still lives 10 minutes down the road, has been coming most weeks since the early part of last year.
“It came to my attention through something on Twitter and so I just private messaged Fitzy and said, look; ‘Anything I can do to help or get involved...’ He said to come down and have a look.”
On the morning The Irish Times visits, the striker, who is currently at Premier League side Burnley, spends the early part of the morning chatting to Josh, a breakfast regular who arrives looking badly shaken and explains that his sister died the previous night.
Walters, who lost his own brother, James, aged just 35 last summer, sits at a corner table almost unnoticed as the centre’s other clients come, eat, chat and go.
“You are just there,” says Walters. “There are no air and graces. Even in the time I’ve been going, it’s grown and the bigger numbers are a good thing because you get to form little relationships with the people, a chance to just sit down and have a little chat with them, find out where they are at.
“A lot of the people who come in aren’t homeless at all, just lonely. They might just need somebody to talk to; it might be a while since they’ve had an actual conversation.”
Walters, who has played more than 50 times for Ireland but is currently working his way back from an Achilles injury that has sidelined him since September, gives time and money to this cause.
On this particular morning he ends up with Fitzpatrick and his son Nathan (blue) at a local branch of outdoor wear store Millets where he spends around €1,250 on warm and waterproof coats to be distributed through the week. He is also involved in preliminary talk about helping with a move to a new, more modern centre.
“Look, I know everybody has their own story,” he says, “and some people have made bad decisions but regardless of what side you see yourself as being on, this shouldn’t happen. People shouldn’t have to come to a foodbank to get bread and butter on a Sunday morning, they shouldn’t have to come to be somewhere that is warm, just to get out of the cold and wet. And it’s terrible to watch the decline in people; they age so quickly when they are on the streets.”
Donna Scully’s working-class Dublin roots are a key component of her social consciousness despite the family firm, started from scratch 25 years ago, now employing around 1,000 people, most of them on Merseyside.
“I’ve always done a lot of fundraising,” says Scully, originally from Ormond Square, in Dublin’s inner city. She left Ireland aged 20 having worked as an office junior then secretary in a couple of local legal firms. In Newcastle she studied at night and after moving to London she qualified as a solicitor before joining John back in his native Liverpool where he had already returned to start what was then a small firm.
“Back then it always tended to be for cancer charities and children’s hospice but the last few years, after seeing what they were doing on social media, it has been the supporters’ food banks.
The company’s name crops up again and again as a key financial backer in these circles and though Scully is rather less, well, Corbynite perhaps, than many of her fellow activists, there is an obvious warmth between then and a definite sense that they are on broadly the same political page.
“I think it comes from my background,” she says, when asked about her motivation. “You carry that with you and I like that I have the power to make some difference. I can do a bit myself and I can influence others to do something too; the staff are a very important factor in all of this.
“I know how bad it can be for people. What it can be like when somebody loses their job...and I’m not afraid [of acting or speaking out about it]; neither is John.”
She certainly has a way with regulars like Peter, a local busker who proudly talks of his act encompassing the entire history of rock and roll on guitar before cheerily admitting: “I’m not very good . . ...I can only play one chord: C. But most rock music is C.”
A few feet away is Lee, who has been coming here on and off since 2011.
“I had a bit of an issue when I lost my lost my job, my wife, my home,” he says.
Like so many others, he has Irish roots and when he says his mother came from Castlepollard, Co Westmeath, I mention that one of those doing the cooking a few feet has away, oil rig worker turned author Peter Farrell, has just me that his father came from the same town.
“Me mum was Farrell,” he says, suddenly up and heading for the serving hatch to find out more. Moments later he is back, triumphantly announcing that they are cousins.
Most of the cooking is done by Robbie Daniels (blue), who has been involved with Fans Supporting Foodbanks since its earliest days. He runs a cafe through the week and gauges how many have attended the breakfast each Sunday by how many eggs he has cracked into his frying pan.
Daniels’s wife, Lynda, comes too. Former inter-county cricketer, Brad Donelan (a London -born Manchester United fan), cleans the toilets and showers so that those who come in to eat can use those facilities too. Mick Whitley (blue), who hopes to be the Labour party’s candidate for Birkenhead in the next general election, is doing the washing up.
Ross Quinn (blue), one of a number of volunteers with a big connection to the trade union, Unite, comes because he has been involved in a dispute at Cammell Laird, the local shipyard that once employed 40,000 but has been threatening recently to lay off half of its remaining 600 workers in what is seen as part of a widespread drift towards casualisation. Some of those involved here have joined the picket line on occasion and having returned the favour once before Christmas as a gesture of solidarity he has been coming since.
The loss of almost all of the big employers from times past has contributed hugely to the city’s problems. Services industries have provided new jobs but very few pay on a par with what the docks or factories did, zero hour contracts leave many in a sort of employment limbo and others have simply been left behind.
Community enterprises like Homebaked, a cafe just opposite Anfield, are among those trying to fill the gap and manager Angela McKay (blue) speaks with pride of the flexibility they show to their 17 staff, most of them local, many of them single parents, while still providing guaranteed hours.
Matchday pie sales (the Scouse, a sort of stew, not a million miles from Irish, is, unsurprisingly, the speciality) provide the backbone of the operation’s revenues and the club take 700 smaller ones to serve in their corporate hospitality section where they get to provide food with a feel-good story behind it while paying promptly to a business that could not cope with normal corporate credit terms.
Co-op financial controller Sally-Anne Watkiss (Wolves), a former senior executive at a FTSE 100 firm before early retirement, is proud of the fact that most of what they take in is reinvested in the community but acknowledges the limits to the difference they can make with a turnover of some €300,000.
In the year to last March, the Trussell Trust provided more than 1.3 million packages containing an emergency three-day supply of food
After 16 years working with the homeless at the city’s Whitechapel centre, McKay knows all too well what the loss of that sort of money would mean but she is dismayed by government policies, most recently the controversial welfare payment Universal Credit, which she believes have done much to exacerbate the existing situation.
Homebaked serves as one of its collection points for FSF but they are based on the other side of Anfield, their van a fixture beside the fanzone at every home game.
It was established three years ago by supporters of the city’s two Premier League clubs, Dave Kelly (blue) and Ian Byrne (red) who are, respectively, active members of the Blue Union and Spirit of Shankly supporters’ clubs.
“We both worked for a trade union and we were visiting a local community centre,” recalls Byrne, “and there was a queue outside. We didn’t know what they were queuing for. The girl who ran the centre told them it was the food bank.
“She brought us in to the back to show us the pantry and it was bare, they were sub-dividing bags of pasta into smaller plastic bags so as to give it out. And we were thinking, these are our people who are queuing up here, so we looked to use our connections to help.
“We had worked together, Everton and Liverpool supporters, on a couple of things – cheaper ticket prices and the like – and so the idea came to ask each supporter who came to a game to give a tin; 60,000 here, 40,000 in across the park [at Goodison]. The thinking was that that could alleviate a lot of the shortages.”
The scale of the problem is enormous. In the year to last March, the Trussell Trust, which co-ordinates some 420 foodbanks across Britain and Northern Ireland, provided more than 1.3 million packages containing an emergency three -day supply of food.
Overall, the figure was up 13 per cent year on year but demand has been officially acknowledged to rise by more than 50 per cent in areas where the government’s flagship welfare reform, Universal Credit, is rolled out, as has started to happen on Merseyside.
Many of those affected are classed as “working poor” rather than unemployed. Anger is routinely expressed that this could be happening in 21st century Britain; that and the fear that Brexit, which Liverpool voted almost 60-40 against, might make matters even worse.
The idea of football supporters coming together to do something about it has caught on, though. After Liverpool, similar schemes followed in the likes of Glasgow, Newcastle, even Chelsea where, Kelly insists, there are those in need of a helping hand. A couple of events have been organised by supporters in Ireland.
On Merseyside, the supporters do their best to co-ordinate collections at each other’s game and there has been a fair bit of official support with Liverpool CEO Peter Moore donating a van (purple, a mix of the two clubs’ colours).
On the day The Irish Times visits, Mike Gordon, president of the club’s American owners Fenway Sports Group and club managing director Billy Hogan swing by to donate and chat with Byrne.
The bulk of what comes in, however, is from ordinary supporters, some from London, Ireland or further afield with donations ranging from a single item – usually a tin of food, packet of pasta, or toiletry – to heavily laden bags. There are corporate ones too, though, some coming through connections, like the two million jaffa cakes Daniels and Byrne had to take three days off work to distribute to charities across the city.
“The fans have been wonderful,” says Daniel Fletcher (red), a 20 year-old local who started volunteering at the North Liverpool Foodbank, where these collections are destined to end up, from school a few years back then stuck around. “The football collections make up more than 25 per cent of all the donations that come in. We’ve seen a huge difference in the amount of stock that we have.
“The derby [at Anfield in December] was amazing. We had to knock food back because we were worried about the weight in the van.”
Last Sunday was something similar at Goodison Park. Despite his allegiances, that was a home game of sorts for Byrne’s father, Tommy (red), a veteran of both Heysel and Hillsborough, who finds himself these days living in the shadow of the rivals’ stadium.
“I’ve got a lot of friends who are Blue. But matchday....No,” he says with a good natured shake of the head. “I used to take our dog, before he died, for a walk around Goodison and let him shit under the turnstiles,” he continues, breaking into a laugh at the thought of it. Then he sighs and turns semi-serious again. “Well, it’s what you do, isn’t it. They do it to us, we do it to them.”