The Coronavirus pandemic has presented football clubs with a number of difficulties but whilst their responsibility to serve the wider community remains more prevalent than ever, Aston Villa have taken a lead in providing support to those most in need.
Football’s indefinite suspension for over three months pales into little significance considering the wider implications of lockdown, exponential rates of infection and a plethora of political controversies that have swept the UK in weeks past.
Dean Smith’s Villa last kicked a ball in anger on March 9 at the King Power Stadium, four days before the Premier League and its shareholders agreed to postpone the next round of fixtures after Mikel Arteta contracted COVID-19, sending Arsenal into self-isolation.
The wake-up call forced the hand of reluctant league officials. Villa’s opponents that weekend, Chelsea would too self-isolate when Callum Hudson-Odoi became the first player to announce he had contracted then recovered from the virus.
Villa’s matchday preparation wouldn’t go to waste though, literally. Over 850 staff packed lunches and hot food was donated to support homeless organisations and sheltered accommodation units through the Aston Villa Foundation.
Hundreds more hot meals have been cooked and sent to feed vulnerable people across Birmingham with the expansion of the Aston Villa Foundation’s Villa Kitchen accommodating the capacity to deliver up to 500 hot meals each week.
Villa’s chief executive Christian Purslow told the club’s website: “I am delighted to be able to support the Villa Kitchen, particularly during a time where this vital work will be needed more than ever, helping the most vulnerable in our society.”
He said the club and its foundation will continue to “aid those who are in need in the city of Birmingham during these most uncertain of times.”
The club has also been closely working alongside the Active Wellbeing Society throughout the pandemic. They’ve coordinated initiatives to tackle food poverty on behalf of Birmingham City Council as part of a ‘Brum Together’ campaign.
Guy Rippon, head of the foundation said: “The Covid-19 situation means that there are now lots of vulnerable people who aren’t eating as they should, so we are therefore expanding the reach through additional resources committed for the foreseeable future.”
A month had passed since the Premier League announced the initial postponement of top-flight football in England and Coronavirus had tragically then taken over 20,000 lives in the UK. On April 24, Aston Villa announced that they’d joined forces with the West Midlands NHS Trust to deliver maternity care at Villa Park.
Supporting local hospitals and indeed those in need of immediate care was another step Villa made to aid the second city’s Coronavirus efforts. Delivering maternity care in a football stadium is probably a first and the thought of birth underneath the North Stand roof just proves how crazy times are right now.
Clinics for expectant mums and new parents took place at the stadium from Monday, April 27 as organised in collaboration with Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust.
Deputy Director of Midwifery, Louise Wilde, who is ironically also a Villa fan, told the Villa website: “I am really pleased that Aston Villa agreed to accommodate the Trust.
“I decided to approach our local football teams because they’re in a perfect position to help us deliver these clinics. There are no matches being played and geographically they are both in the right place for our patients.
Guy Rippon was again proud that the club could support the health service during a time of need.
“We are delighted to be able to help out our local NHS hospitals by opening up Villa Park as a temporary maternity clinic.
“During these uncertain times, our famous home will provide a safe environment for local expectant mothers and their midwives and nurses to be able to carry out their vital work.”
Villa Park’s clinics were staffed by 10 midwives, and two support workers, with two health visitors taking appointments to ensure the virus’ safety guidelines were met while upholding the necessary requirements to deliver maternity care.
A day after Villa announced their pledge to assist NHS trusts and the communities they serve, CEO Purslow declared that Villa’s first-team players, coaches and senior managers had all agreed to a 25% wage deferral for four months.
Following ‘substantial funding’ from owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, there was to be no furloughing of non-football staff members, both full time and part-time who would be retained and paid in full throughout the lockdown period.
In the midst of the crisis, around late April time, Purslow was ‘pleased to announce measures to protect livelihoods.’
“We have made all our facilities available to the multi agencies working so hard to protect people during this time of national emergency.
“First-team players, first-team coaches and senior management have all agreed to defer 25 per cent of their salaries for four months to assist the club during this period of uncertainty with a further review taking place at the end of this period.
“Our players and staff feel great solidarity with the many clubs in the football pyramid who have financial problems and we believe it is right and proper that the Premier League as a whole takes action on its finances collectively to enable it to be able to continue to provide vital funding throughout the game in England.”
Following Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s call for Premier League footballers to donate a portion of their wages to struggling hospices, the individual efforts from Villa players and staff members went above and beyond.
As a collective, Premier League footballers formed the initiative #PlayersTogether, which was set up to “help those fighting for us on the NHS frontline” amid the coronavirus pandemic. Partnered with NHS Charities Together (NHSCT), Hancock “warmly welcomed” the “big-hearted decision”.
In a statement – posted by more than 150 top-flight players on social media – they said they were “collaborating together to create a voluntary initiative, separate to any other league and club conversation.”
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The intention was to “try and help, along with so many others in the country, to make a real difference”.
Former Aston Villa club captain James Chester explained to The Athletic how Villa players were involved in the initiative.
He said: “I’m not sure how other clubs have done it, but at Villa, we are texting Tyrone with the percentage of our monthly wage we want donating, and that will be sent directly by the club to the charity. It’s not compulsory, and a few of the lads who have come from abroad are interested in helping back home, which is understandable.”
Current skipper Jack Grealish and Tom Heaton were involved in discussions over setting up the scheme with other Premier League figureheads, whilst Tyrone Mings co-ordinated the Villa players’ contributions.
Individually, Villa players have raised money, offered accommodation and even took to the recording booths to boost morale and help the fight against Coronavirus.
At the beginning of April, Chester made his Birmingham flat available for NHS staff during the pandemic, by listing his flat on the NHS Homes scheme, making it free for NHS workers to use when required during the crisis.
He explained: “At the moment my Birmingham flat is empty, but this week I put it on a scheme for NHS staff. NHS Homes, it’s called. I only heard about it in the last few days. If doctors or nurses in the area need a place to stay, it’s there.”
Make-A-Wish ambassador and Villa’s assistant coach John Terry also made a generous contribution to those in need, by launching a fund-raiser to donate £250,000 to the NHS in support of critically-ill children.
JT kicked off the scheme by pledging £26,000 out of his own pocket.
He said at the time: “I want to start with a very big personal thank you to all those who continue to selflessly fight on the frontline for us all, all the NHS staff, social carers and key workers that are tirelessly working so hard right now.”
Make-A-Wish foundation has lost over £2.7m in income since the virus struck the UK, and Terry recognised the importance of supporting their incredible work ahead of World Wish Day two months ago.
“Like so many charities, they have been heavily impacted by coronavirus and as result the charity has had to postpone about 1,000 wishes and stop work on a further 1,000 applications,” Terry explained.
“Wednesday, April 29 is World Wish Day and I’m determined to do everything I can to ensure this remains a special day for as many of these children as possible.
“Over the next few weeks, I will be hosting a special auction on eBay with personal pieces from my career and will be calling on former teammates, friends, sporting heroes, actors and musicians to help me continue to grant wishes during this incredibly difficult time.”
Ex-Villans join the cause
Club icon Gabriel Agbonlahor also pledged to auction off special memorabilia to support key workers and NHS charities. Gabby scored five goals in seven-second city derbies against Birmingham City and gave away the shirt from his last goal against his arch-rival.
He told talkSPORT: “I’ve already donated some money to the NHS, but I just thought, ‘what could I do?’, and what sort of shirt or boots would Villa fans want to win? I was sitting there thinking and I thought, ‘what about the derby shirt?’.
“It was my last derby, I scored in the game and we won 1-0 and I thought it would be something Villa fans want to win.”
His raffle generated over £16,000 for NHS Charities Together. Gabby himself came down with the virus and described the symptoms as the “the worst thing I have ever been through.”
Close friend and former Villa fan-favourite Stiliyan Petrov were on hand to help Gabby get through the worst of his bout of illness.
“My good friend Stiliyan Petrov and his wife live about five minutes away and kept leaving stuff on my doorstep, vitamins and different things,” Agbonlahor said.
“I love Stiliyan, he’s a good guy and I owe a lot to him, and my next-door neighbour who was helping a lot as well.”
Derby day goals will always be remembered as some of the best by Villa fans, especially when your boyhood supporting club captain chips in with the winner. First, it was Gabby, then it was Jack under the Gil Merrick Stand.
Grealish took Gabby’s lead in auctioning his derby-day winning jersey, raising over £55,000 to support NHS staff and volunteers caring for Covid-19 patients.
On his JustGiving page, Grealish said: ‘I want to thank every single person that entered the raffle! Together we have managed to raise over £55,000!’
Later on, in April, Villa defender Korney Hause came up with the original idea to create a song titled ‘Worth It’. Music has been his hobby and passion for many years, and is something Hause wants to pursue after football.
After making his first steps in the music industry, Hause generously donated all proceeds from the song to the NHS and the battle against coronavirus.
He told The Sun: “The idea for Worth It came because I live with one of my good friends who is a music producer. He works with my younger brother Rio and he finds loads of instrumentals and great beats on YouTube and stuff.
“I’ve sent the full track to a few of them (Villa team-mates) and all of them love it,” added 24-year-old Hause.
“I’m always singing in the changing room or even the gym while I’m working out.”
The Coronavirus has impacted different parts of the world at different time scales and magnitudes, and whilst the Villa squad shares 14 nationalities across several continents, the individual impact of the virus has taken time to settle.
Brazilian newspaper Globo Extra reported that Villa striker Wesley donated 150 food baskets to families ‘at risk’ in the Monte Castelo neighbourhood in Juiz de Fora, his hometown in Minas Gerais.
Villa’s record signing is still in Brazil undergoing rehab on his knee injury suffered on New Year’s Day in Villa’s second away win of the Premier League season against Burnley.
Wesley said: “We are living in a difficult time, and I want to help to try to alleviate this crisis”.
“I was born in Juiz de Fora, I grew up in Monte Castelo, and I have many friends in the neighbourhood. They are humble families, just like mine, and we need to come together to overcome this period in the best possible way.”
In more recent times, the lockdown has been lifted incrementally and infection rates have decreased, allowing the Premier League to reveal plans to resume the league starting on Wednesday, June 17.
Villa will play their game in hand against Sheffield United in the game that will kick start Project Restart. The club and the Aston Villa Foundation, however, remains keen to provide and support communities struck by the virus.
The Share and Wear campaign is an initiative Villa is heading to help keep vulnerable people warm by collecting items of clothing and redistributing them to those most in need.
Following Villa Park’s part-transformation to supply meals and provide maternity care, the club’s official foundation continues to work closely to the #BrumTogether initiative.
The stadium will be used to store and distribute clothing as part of a new project has teamed up with The Active Wellbeing Society alongside the #BrumTogether network.
Jen Tullett, neighbourhood engagement officer at the Aston Villa Foundation, told the club’s official website: “This is a coordinated response to a need that has been identified by those working with people and communities facing the biggest challenges.
“We are more than happy to utilise our facilities, staff and networks to help to try and address this need.”
Karen Creavin, chief executive of The Active Wellbeing Society, added: “Our aim is to reach out to and support those who most need help during these challenging times. Not only does this involve providing them with food and other essential supplies, but clothing too.”
The Villa Foundation have been working throughout the pandemic to cater for all backgrounds and needs, including the collaboration with various charities in the past three months.
Save UK Charities
Over £10m has been raised in The 2.6 Challenge, with help from the involvement of Villa who promoted the campaign which aims to ‘Save UK Charities’. As the London Marathon was postponed in April, the challenge went viral in order to cover the lost funding from the annual race.
The foundation called for all Aston Villa fans to get involved in The 2.6 Challenge to help us raise funds for packages containing essential items and food for vulnerable families in Birmingham.
From running, walking or cycling 2.6 miles, holding the plank for 2 minutes 6 seconds or even walking 26 miles in your back garden – getting involved in the fundraiser couldn’t have been easier and Villans up and down the country did their bit for charity.
Us fans were also catered for by the club with season ticket holders reimbursed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 campaign which will be played behind closed doors.
Season ticket holders will be given the choice of a refund or an e-voucher which can be used against future purchases or for donations to the Aston Villa Foundation.
Villa’s remaining home fixture list includes a host of attractive games with Chelsea, Manchester United Arsenal and Midlands rivals Wolves.