Through good times and bad, football clubs can rely on fans to be there. But who supports the supporters when life away from the terraces becomes too much?

Clubs displaying a sense of community is no new phenomenon. Most, if not all, have long embraced a responsibility to pay back to the people who give them so much, week after week.

But in a world returned to something like it was before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, only to then be met head on by a crippling cost-of-living crisis, many of those people need help now more than ever. As of September last year, an estimated 14.5million people in the UK were living in poverty, 4.5m of those being children.

Herald Sport has told over the past few months how soaring costs were impacting the ordinary football fan, a traditionally working class demographic, and forcing a rising number to consider how much longer they can afford to follow the team they love. Football clubs cannot bring down inflation or apply discounts to energy bills, but they can help. And, they are.

If you have never engaged with one of the community trusts operated by every professional club in Scotland, you may be no more than vaguely aware of their function and the difference they make in people’s lives. The social media age has afforded their endeavours greater visibility, but if you’ve noticed an increased presence from your club in the community, it’s probably because they have never worked harder.

READ MORE: Grassroots football clubs fear for future amid cost of living crisis

“We are the official charitable arm of the football club,” said Dawn Middleton, Motherwell Community Trust general manager. “We support the community, just as a community supports the club. All clubs, irrespective of who you support, have tough times on the pitch, and the fans are always there to support. They might be shouting, swearing and moaning, but they’re always here to watch the game. The charity is there to do the reverse; when times are tough for our community, we are there to support.

“Right now, times are tough for our fanbase, so the club needs to be there for them. They wouldn’t want to see Motherwell FC take their eye off 3pm on a Saturday to do so, so that’s where your community trust kicks in.”

Their work involves everything from football coaching through to mental health initiatives and the opportunity to attend a weekly ‘Meet and Heat’ at Fir Park, a warm space to enjoy hot food, drinks and social interaction, all free of charge.

The Herald: 'Meet and Heat' is one of a number of Motherwell Community Trust initiatives'Meet and Heat' is one of a number of Motherwell Community Trust initiatives (Image: Motherwell Community Trust)

The football element remains – the benefits of sport on mental and physical wellbeing are well documented – but the very purpose of community trusts dictates they adapt to what the people they serve really need. In recent years, tackling social issues has come to the fore, and football is uniquely placed to reach people that other initiatives may not.

“One of the things football has is that traditional 18-45 demographic which is so difficult to reach,” Middleton said. “But we have that as our captive audience day-to-day, 18-45-year-old men who are a nightmare to engage with, we have them here every second Saturday for a couple of hours.

“Football has that role, it breaks down stigma. We provide a safe space for people to come for a variety of different things, from the age of 18 months right up to people over 90. It’s a wide demographic.”

It is easy to assume, given their increased social media presence and how it can be further amplified by official club channels, that these projects are a simple case of ‘build it and they will come’. When Motherwell advertised the ‘Meet and Heat’ at Fir Park, the post received thousands of interactions and shares on Twitter, reaching a massive audience.

READ MORE: SPFL clubs reveal how they're coping with the cost of living crisis

The first night, however?  “No one turned up,” Middleton said. “We didn’t do enough groundwork to find people. Not everyone is scrolling through Twitter, particularly the older generation or people who can’t pay electricity bills. It’s about understanding that.”

There also remains a considerable stigma around poverty, one that community trusts work hard to break down. For example, ‘Meet and Heat’ was originally named ‘Fir Park Heat Hub’, but there was concern that tag invoked an element of shame.

“These people, like you and I, have been brought up to work, but through no fault of their own they can’t make ends meet,” Middleton said. “We provide free wi-fi, because people are telling us they can’t afford to FaceTime their families.

“Children can’t do their homework because they don’t have access to computers. They might have the computer, but they don’t have money to pay for electricity. It’s not that people choose not to put the heating on, they can’t afford it.

“Working people are living like that, and it’s horrendous. If we can support people so that they can say ‘I’m just going down to the football club’, instead of the ‘food hub’ or ‘heat hub’, that’s better because there’s no shame in that. There can’t ever be a stigma.”

It’s a sentiment shared up the road at Dundee United. Their community trust has created four new weekly projects with funding from the SPFL Trust; a Tannadice drop-in for free food and drink; a disability programme; a family night celebrating Dundee’s diversity; and a cinema club. Paul Wilson is the trust’s head of community development and, like his counterparts in Lanarkshire, understands making people feel comfortable in utilising services is paramount.

The Herald: Clubs are doing more work than ever to engage with communitiesClubs are doing more work than ever to engage with communities (Image: Dundee United Community Trust)

“We thought things were bad coming out of the pandemic, but they’re a lot worse now,” he admitted. “Our focus was always on supporting people in poverty, but now it’s been ramped up tenfold. It’s not just about providing football or doing a bit in schools now, it’s ‘how can we tie food and warm spaces into it?' Living in poverty affects people differently. What is poverty for one person is completely different for the next.

“Having that stigma just puts barriers up right and people are less likely to engage. People living in poverty know they’re living in poverty, they don’t need their faces rubbed in it. We get the enjoyment of working in football, but not the tribal aspect.”

It’s little surprise that football’s notorious tribalism is removed when aims and objectives are shared. United have worked with Dundee in the past on running football camps and a reading campaign. In Edinburgh, Hearts and Hibs collaborate on a men’s mental health project called The Changing Room, as do United.

READ MORE: Fans Supporting Foodbanks - Putting rivalries aside for greater good

“We have a big focus on mental health,” Wilson said. “The Changing Room is a 12-week programme for men in their middle years. We started it last year, with the SPFL Trust and SAMH. We didn’t know what we were getting into, whether it would work or fall on its face.

“Unfortunately, there’s been a reasonable uptake, which shows where people are at right now, coming out of the pandemic. People saw light at the end of the tunnel but now the cost-of-living crisis is brutal for most. We’re one of the most well-attended sessions in the country.”

With research published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in October last year indicating a quarter of people seeking mental health support face a 12-week wait for treatment, it’s little wonder they are turning to such initiatives. In Greenock Morton Community Trust have run their ‘Team Talk’ mental health meeting every week since May 2019, and attendances are only moving in one direction.

“We’ve seen additional men attend that session because they’re worried and struggling,” said chief-executive Brian McLaughlin. “We also do ‘Breakfast and a Blether' on a Wednesday morning – come in for a roll and a cup of tea, have a chat – and we had record numbers the week before Christmas. It shows people want out the house, but it also shows they’re relying on that one meal and a bit of social interaction.”

Morton’s trust has run since 2013, and is a prime example of observing, listening and reacting to what their communities need from them. Running several football teams for boys and girls, the trust became aware of an increasingly prevalent issue.

The Herald: Club legend Andy Ritchie, DJ George Bowie and chief-executive Brian McLaughlin promote the trust's 'Boots and Pieces' schemeClub legend Andy Ritchie, DJ George Bowie and chief-executive Brian McLaughlin promote the trust's 'Boots and Pieces' scheme (Image: Greenock Morton Community Trust)

“We’re seeing it and hearing it,” McLaughlin said. “Sport is hugely positive for mental health, but sometimes the barrier is having things to wear and the finance to purchase them. ’Boots and Pieces’ was an idea from one of our trustees, Megan. People grow out of things very quickly, so it means they also stock things very quickly.

“We thought ‘how can we use that and get it to people who might need it?’ That will, hopefully, cut down one barrier, at least. And maybe release a bit of pressure on having to go buy trainers or football boots.”

The scheme allows people to donate unwanted sports kit and swap for something they need. Or, if they can’t afford it, items can be taken free of charge. Again, though, a key element is removing stigma.

“We turned it into a swap shop and give people the option of that sense of pride that comes with purchasing an item,” said McLaughlin. “There’s no obligation to buy anything, they can get it free of charge, but sometimes people want to hand something over and get something in return. So, they can, for example, swap trainers for trainers, or just take them for nothing.”

A simple gesture, but one that might just feel invaluable to someone who needs it. The same goes for that midweek mental health meeting, or just simply getting out the house for a heat and a hot meal. Neither clubs nor fans want to be in a position where these services are needed, but their existence builds trust between the two, an understanding that their team is there for them when they need it, just as they’ll always be there watching on a Saturday.

These tireless, innovative and endlessly committed individuals behind community trusts may never kick a ball, but no one better epitomises what supporters want from their football club.