It has not been said often enough so it’s about time we addressed the position by declaring ‘the best team at Edgar Street’ are the scores of volunteers that ensure Hereford Football Club continues to operate as efficiently and ‘professionally’ as possible.
At half-time during the Yate Town fixture 10 days ago a number of volunteers were able to assemble on the pitch, and it probably came a shock to some supporters just how many there were. Add to that those who were ‘working’ around the ground at the time and were not able to be there, and the total probably extends to over 75 volunteers.
A tribute to volunteers has been written by Mike Hodson as part of his regular blog which focuses on non-league football. He argues they are the most important people involved as ‘collectively they keep clubs running’. He are some selected extracts:
Usually small in number, performing an array of tasks, a club is unable to function without its volunteers. The tasks that depend on voluntary service are widespread in requirement and impressive in achievement. A quick mental reflection generates a list that includes: washing the kit, cleaning the changing rooms, editing the programme, operating the tannoy, maintaining the pitch and marking it out, putting up and taking down the nets, selling the raffle tickets, staffing the refreshment hut, operating the turnstiles, and much more. And, of course, at some clubs the chairman and the manager perform their roles without payment and are also volunteers. Beyond this, there is painting the ground and giving it a makeover, raising funds for ground improvements and so on. There are doubtless many other tasks, on match days and throughout the season, that I’ve not listed. Much of this valuable work goes on regularly and is, at best, weakly recognised and, at worst, is taken for granted.
Some clubs rely on volunteers more than others. Some of the bigger, more powerful, non-league clubs have ‘professionalised’ some services, such as getting the kit washed or looking after the pitch and some have franchised their refreshment huts. For many non-league clubs though, particularly as you move down the pyramid, volunteers and the work they do remains vital.
At its best volunteering, and what it represents, persists as an antidote to the dominance of a private, corporate culture in contemporary society. It’s public, it’s cooperative and usually undertaken for reasons beyond narrow self-interest. This kind of activity is not limited to non-league football. Lots of local sports clubs rely on this kind of volunteering as do a range of other local groups, clubs and societies.
Volunteering is often understood in terms of those kinds of practical activity, set out above, that a person undertakes to support the club. But, it means much more than this. Fundamentally, it is about a yearning for a different kind of social relationship. Many of our relationships – at work, in consuming products, clothes, food in restaurants and so on – are predicated on a transaction. You pay for something and you get a product. Or, you sell your labour to your employer and get a wage for the work you do. Volunteering is not a transactional relationship of this sort, captured by the search for profit or the employer-employee relationship. It is a different kind of relationship based on numerous things.
Volunteers frequently turn up week after week, game after game, over many years. They display commitment. Many times as I’ve been ground hopping, and gone to a particular club and then gone back some months or even years later, it has been the same person operating the turnstile. Or when I’ve gone for a pie at the refreshment hut, it is the same person. This speaks to loyalty. Many people provide this commitment, not for financial reward but because they are loyal to a club. Success on the pitch is nice, but it’s not an expectation. They believe in the club and what it stands for; continuity, shared endeavour, serving rather than taking, and to work together, collectively, to do something.
Volunteering, therefore, is also about belonging; belonging to something bigger than themselves. This belonging has to be made by collective endeavour rather than it be a product that is made by others and which you then buy. Belonging, in this way, being part of something, can’t be bought. It doesn’t have a price on it – perhaps other than the financial costs to those of volunteering. Why would a middle-aged man spend his time reading out the teams over the tannoy? Why would a young woman volunteer to drive and pick up food to be served in the refreshment hut or to collect the club kit from a launderette? The motivation is something more powerful than either individual greed or subservience. We live in a society where many of our powerful institutions and much of our media tell us that we don’t want collective forms of provision but that we want private, transactional relationships. Volunteering at non-league football is a quiet, defiant challenge to this ideology.
It is about those very unfashionable concerns of giving something back and making a difference to others. It is premised on being part of a team, but there is something personal as well as collective about volunteering. It generates confidence, self-esteem and contributes to our wellbeing through emphasising collective values rather than personal gain. Volunteering is a story that is repeated at clubs up and down the country on a regular basis. Politicians have recognised and sought to distort the positive power of volunteering. When David Cameron started churning out his politically self-serving Big Society mantra it struck me that many people already do this and they don’t need a ridiculous label to persuade them to do it.
So, what’s the future for volunteering? It’s often felt to be the case that clubs need volunteers because they can’t afford to buy in the services they need to function. While there is undoubtedly some truth in this, the reasons that people volunteer are much richer than this and provide the basis for a different way of thinking about how we relate to each other and the kind of society we live in.
For many clubs reliance on volunteers is normal. It’s also a struggle; it can often be the usual few (and sometimes the very few) that do this work. Where volunteering is vibrant it’s a model for working collectively through camaraderie and collective spirit. Where there’s a struggle it is usually due to a lack of volunteers and sometimes bickering and personality struggles. Often volunteering is fundamental to how a club functions and is organised more or less informally. Some clubs, though, have sought to build this in to their organisational structures. This is the case with fan-owned clubs, such as FC United, but also where supporters’ trusts are seeking to influence clubs. Volunteering is about helping clubs function. It is also, importantly, about the struggle to promote a more collective social organisation and this should be saluted.
There are plenty more excellent articles to read on the MHOD71 blog.