"Modern football clubs have a responsibility to engage with and take care of the communities they represent".

“When football leads, real change can be achieved”, declared the Minister for Social Care, Mental Wellbeing and Sport, Maree Todd, during closing remarks at the Scottish Parliament’s recent debate on ‘The Role of Football in Scottish Society and Communities’. This followed one of the most amicable discussions to grace Holyrood in recent times, having ignited rare cross-party camaraderie between the Conservatives, Labour, the Lib Dems, and the SNP during recollections of ministers footballing memories.

The debate was not only refreshing to see at a time when divisions have been so rife throughout our parliament, but as a lifelong football fan who has volunteered for several sports community interest companies (CICs) in the past, it was a clear indication that football has the unique ability to break down strong barriers whilst really championing the themes of integration. As a result, there is now scope to further highlight the major health and social benefits of the game, especially amongst the many third sector organisations utilising integrated methods of working in sport. 

As Maree Todd added in her closing remarks, “football can, and does, play a powerful role in leading the way in addressing wider societal challenges”. I recently visited Cumnock Juniors Community Enterprise (CJCE) in East Ayrshire to conduct a Connected Communities case study, where this was immediately evident – so much so that I couldn’t adequately include everything the charity does. 

Centred around Cumnock Juniors Football Club, CJCE were set up in 2013. Since then, they have gone on to ensure that the club’s Townhead Park has become an integrated community sports hub, with a sharp focus on the targeting of societal challenges such as poor health outcomes and anti-social behaviour. Ten years on, CJCE are now at the forefront of everything the community does in Cumnock.

With hundreds of registered players, qualified coaches and first aiders, CJCE really embrace partnership working and have a plethora of strategic partnerships from across the sectors, making the charity truly all-encompassing of the entire community. In fact, it is so far-reaching that it accommodates both a 75-year old grandfather and his 5-year old granddaughter within separate football programmes under the one roof.

Research suggests that 83% of people living in Scotland live within ten miles of an SPFL ground, with those living closest to stadiums three times more likely to be living in poverty. But charities such as CJCE are playing their part in addressing this, with “football helping to deliver on key policy priorities for the Scottish Government” within the health and wellbeing agenda, as outlined by Ms Todd. 

As the focal point of many communities across Scotland – and the epicentre of community engagement and collaboration – modern football clubs now have a responsibility to engage with and take care of the communities they represent. People in towns such as Cumnock have enjoyed the seemingly limitless benefits of an integrated approach to sport which champions community health and wellbeing. It is true, however, that in other parts of the country, more could be done to harness the power of integration within sport.

For smaller clubs based in rural areas, particularly in the north and south of Scotland, this has been more challenging due to the limited infrastructure on offer. As a result, there are still barriers to integration within football – and within sport more widely. But with an emphasis on prevention and proactivity throughout the health and wellbeing agenda, I believe the CJCE model provides a basis for the Scottish Government and Scottish Football Association (SFA) to explore and champion integration within community football, which with the right investment, would allow every Scottish town and community to truly put proactive, healthy living at the forefront of their everyday lives.

In many countries, football has become a commercialised product where communities are becoming increasingly alienated by their football clubs, with the powers that be well out of their reach. However, football can, and has been, at the centre of integration and social care within communities, with it being a driving force in bringing people together whilst pushing cultural and transformational change. This is the case in Scotland, where our national game is still very much a community game, and as a result, is something special that should be further harnessed, embraced and cherished.

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