Football for Foodbanks: How friendly games are supporting Yorkshire's most in need
Seeds for the idea were planted more than 6,000 miles away in Vietnam. When he lived there before the Covid-19 pandemic, Matty MacNeil played in local “pick-up” games, where groups of friends would come together for friendly fixtures. Upon returning to Sheffield, he wanted to continue, but he didn’t enjoy playing for the local 11 and five-a-side teams. So Matty took to Reddit, an online media community, and asked if anyone would be interested in friendly scrimmages.
The response was massive, and he was very quickly running two games per week. He charged players £3 per match, which covered the pitch hire and equipment. But as more players joined and the group grew, Matty collected a surplus every week. He wanted to use it for good – and so Football for Foodbanks (FFF) was born.
The charity is less than three-years-old, but its impact on the most vulnerable is huge – and it’s only growing. “The thought of children waking up to empty cupboards in the morning is upsetting to me,” Matty says. “I have always donated to foodbanks, so I felt it was right to donate this money to them, too.”
During the pandemic and now the cost-of-living crisis, foodbank usage across the UK has soared. The latest figures from the Trussell Trust show 2.1 million food parcels were handed out to to people facing financial hardship in the 12 months to March 2022, 14 per cent higher than in 2019-20, before the pandemic.
In Sheffield, where FFF began, the picture is even bleaker – more than 60,000 food parcels were handed out across 18 distribution centres in 2021-22, almost four times the number distributed in 2019-20. Of these, 23,000 were given to children.
Alison Wise helps at the S6 Foodbank, which hosts 13 sessions across 11 Sheffield locations. She says groups such as FFF are critical to the lifeblood of local foodbanks, where people can pick up food parcels and receive the help they need.
The donations, she says, are hugely impactful, but the awareness is equally as important. “They get our message out to people who we wouldn’t otherwise reach,” she tells me. And that, she says, leads to longer-term and more sustainable giving from communities and businesses.
FFF’s support of S6 Foodbank and others in the area has led to rapid development of services available to those in need. The foodbank now features a cafe, where guests can have a hot drink and a snack. They can also book Citizen’s Advice sessions, seek debt support and get help with other issues in their life.
“We’ve worked really hard to make a place where people can come, sit and just be,” Alison says. “Lockdown took away a lot of the conversations we have. That’s where the power of what we do is, so to have them back is hugely important.”
Part of the FFF ethos is playing football in a friendly and inclusive manner. Alice Rhind-Tutt got involved in 2020 when her partner started playing. Her weekly football game had been closed down, and she was looking for another opportunity to play regularly.
She reached out to Matty, asking if she and some female friends could join in. Matty welcomed them and also offered to put on a separate game if they could get enough players. Alice put the call out, and the Women’s and Gender Minorities division began.
Fast forward two years, and more than 250 women and minority genders have played at least once. They offer 34 weekly slots in Sheffield alone, and have active communities in Manchester and Chesterfield too.
Alice says the growth of the women’s professional game has ‘legitimised’ them. She welcomed many new players to the group following England’s triumph at last summer’s Euros.
FFF is also open to transgender and non-binary players. The charity sells rainbow laces that all players can buy – and you will see many sporting them in their boots at their many matches. It also held a summer tournament with the Sheffield Laces, a local organisation encouraging women and minority genders into football.
The men’s divisions are now spread across four cities – Sheffield, Chesterfield, Manchester and Milton Keynes. In Sheffield, Matty and his team of volunteers run at least six games of football per week, with 110 slots that players can sign up for in an active Facebook group. They use snazzy graphics to reveal the line-ups for each match, and sometimes play tournaments and friendlies against local teams, with the entry fee often a bag of food, rather than cash.
The charity has just received £10,000 in funding from the National Lottery, and Matty is planning for further expansion, with more locations on the way. Wherever they will be, they will meet local foodbanks in growing need.
Emma Revie, chief executive at the Trussell Trust, says this winter has been the hardest yet, and the organisation’s latest figures show demand has now surpassed supply, with the need for emergency food outstripping donations for the first time.
Meanwhile, the cost-of-living crisis has led to a drastic increase in the number of people turning to foodbanks for support, and Ms Revie has called on the Government to close the gap between inflating prices and incomes.
With high inflation, soaring interest rates and high energy and food prices expected to last into 2024, there is certainly a need for groups like FFF. Thankfully, Matty feels there is much more to come.