There are few who know as much about football’s community work than Charlton Athletic’s Steve Sutherland.
Having been involved with the Addicks since 1989, Sutherland was Charlton’s Commercial Director between 2000 and 2009, overseeing the club’s Premier League business development before going on to become Charlton Athletic Community Trust Ambassador.
Charlton’s community work was initially established in August 1992 through a partnership between the football club and the Professional Footballers’ Association before the club set-up a charitable arm in 2003.
It meant the community scheme now sat under the umbrella of the newly-formed Charlton Athletic Community Trust (CACT) with Sutherland one of the founding members.
Since then, CACT has gone from strength to strength, working with 46,778 people in the last financial year over a wide variety of topics – from providing sport engagement sessions for young people to assisting the most vulnerable members of the community through mental health and wellbeing programmes.
CACT also conducted over 9,000 hours of mentoring via it’s Street Violence Ruins Lives programme and saw 1,617 young people take part in National Citizen Service across South East London and Kent.
The club’s fine work also saw it named London’s top club for community work earlier this year while it’s Down’s Syndrome team, Charlton Upbeats, won an impressive ninth DS Active national title last season.
Despite all the success, Sutherland, who is celebrating his 10th anniversary as CACT Ambassador, believes many outside those who are directly involved in the schemes do not fully understand, or appreciate, the importance a football club has within its local community.
“Charlton Athletic have always tried to be at the forefront of using football to play a big role in combating social issues,” Sutherland exclusively told London Football Scene.
“Street Violence Ruins Lives, which I co-founded with Jason Morgan, Charlton’s Community Trust CEO, is now one of the leading crime reduction programmes in the game.
“When you reach certain landmarks, all of a sudden everyone starts congratulating you and I know Charlton fans are proud of what the club does in the community.
“But I don’t think they know how much work actually goes on in the community.”
Now more than ever, with the coronavirus pandemic continuing to sweep across the country, society needs their local football clubs to provide crucial and additional welfare support.
Although lockdowns have forced CACT to halt its programmes and usual face-to-face delivery, it has not seen their good work stop there.
Instead, the Trust has taken an alternative approach with virtual projects, developing a ‘Community Hub’ as a single point of contact, training and mobilising Trust staff to work with the health improvement team to provide much needed support for residents living across Greenwich.
“Wherever Charlton Community Trust goes, others follow” Sutherland said. “Football Clubs are not just what happens on the field.
“It’s not just about the turnstiles; it’s about everything that goes on around it and every club, whatever the size, is vital to their local communities
“It’s about the huge amount of work that goes on in that community as well – each club has its own community programme and they all do vital work.
Charlton’s Community Trust is used to overcoming hurdles to deliver – not only having to deal with a pandemic to continue to provide key community support but boardroom wranglings over the actual ownership of the club throughout the past 12 months has seen the entire existence of the football club threatened.
However, with Thomas Sandgaard confirmed as Charlton Athletic’s new owner last month, Sutherland is excited about the Addicks’ future on and off the field.
“The potential is massive and I hope this is just the start. I’m really impressed by the early signs,” Sutherland said.
“The last few years have been difficult – the bond between the club and community has still been there but not in a way it used to be.
“The owners didn’t understand the club, the culture, the support base. We somewhat lost that linkage.
“I am hoping we can get that back now the club has been bought by someone who appreciates what Charlton the brand is all about and what it can achieve.
“When I was Commercial Director, Charlton were in the Premier League and all aspects of the club were firing on all cylinders – including the Trust.
“Since then it’s fallen back – both on the field as well as the infrastructure off it because the owners haven’t appreciated what could be done.
“This takeover was vital; it could not have come any later and I am encouraged. I think everyone knows the formula to get Charlton back where they belong again.”
Despite the renewed optimism the takeover has brought, Sutherland remains concerned the entire fate of Charlton Athletic and the Community Trust is beyond their control if fans are still unable to return to The Valley due to coronavirus restrictions.
After proposals from some Premier League giants to restructure the football pyramid were rejected, Sutherland had a stark warning for the elite not to under appreciate or devalue those outside the top-flight.
“Football clubs outside the Premier league have always been the breeding ground,” Sutherland said. “The Premier League is not in isolation.
“If you think about the entire Premier League, they all have key players and managers who have learnt their trade or come up through the Football League or lower.
“There has to be a situation where funding is given as a priority [to the smaller teams] and it should be provided by not only the Government and the Premier League, but also from the PFA because without the fans, what are the players going to do?
“I’d like to see a multi-agency approach – it’s called a pyramid structure for a reason. It’s the football family. And everyone is an important cog in there.”