Charity's on the ball to let fans live the dream

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IN a world where those earning five-figure weekly wages often hit the headlines after nightclub spats, court appearances and displays of flashy excess, football’s attempts at social responsibility are often lost.

But a small Edinburgh-based charity organisation, launched by local businessman Craig Paterson, has slapped a sticking plaster on a torn reputation and is helping football mend its image while also raising cash for charity.

Through Football Aid, Mr Paterson is selling a simple concept: the experience of a lifetime, which for football fans is the chance to step into the boots of their heroes and "play" for their club or country at famous grounds.

It has afforded a 65-year-old fan the experience of nutmegging former Scotland captain Colin Hendry. Another got to experience the walk of shame after being red-carded at Leeds United’s Elland Road ground - after flying in from New Zealand to play.

"We simply allow football fans to live their dream," states Mr Paterson, the former chairman and founder of Edinburgh recruitment firm Melville Craig, which was later sold to global jobs giant TMP in a multi-million-pound deal.

Last month, Football Aid’s work was recognised, with the group winning the Business in the Community accolade in the Evening News’ Business Excellence Awards.

Since it was launched in 2001, as a means of raising money to help fund diabetes research, the charity - which is a subsidiary of Field of Dreams - has given a platform to more than 6000 fans to live their dream in more than 200 games. At the same time, it has raised more than 1.5 million for a number of charities.

Having sold his stake in Melville Craig - which at the time was Scotland’s largest independent recruitment firm - Mr Paterson decided to dedicate his future efforts towards charitable fundraising. One of his main motivations was raising money for diabetes charities, after the life-threatening illness afflicted his young son.

"I was going to retire to the seaside," he says. "But my son had contracted Type-1 (juvenile) diabetes and I wanted to help find a cure.

"I thought that if someone would pay a lot of money for a signed football shirt, how much would they pay to play a game at Ibrox, Tynecastle or Old Trafford?" he says.

"The majority of football fans never get further than through the turnstile, they never see what the players see and what actually goes on before a game."

He envisaged a concept where two sets of fans, one dressed in the team’s home kit, the other in the away strip, played a game against each other at a club ground. They would get the team talk beforehand from the manager, be handed their personalised shirt, be skippered during the game by one of the club’s former players while playing proper rules under the watchful eye of a qualified referee.

Mr Paterson first contacted Celtic and was immediately offered the use of the club’s stadium. Galvanised by that, he called on Rangers chairman David Murray, who quickly signed up too. "I saw that football clubs had a white space in the calendar at the end of their season when their stadiums lay empty," he says.

"We sold the concept on the idea that we were looking to provide activities that brought about a reputation gain for the host club and gave it a broader platform to promote its corporate social responsibility agenda from."

Within a year, even before the first event in Southampton had been staged, Mr Paterson had signed up almost 50 of Britain’s biggest clubs to Football Aid, including Hearts, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, Liverpool and Arsenal, after touring the country banging on doors.

"The biggest achievement I think was in getting the football industry to support a small, independent charity based in Scotland," says Mr Paterson.

Although strictly not-for-profit, Football Aid, which employs eight people at its office in Edinburgh’s West End, is run on the basis that made Melville Craig a success.

"The world of charity is as competitive as the world of business," states Mr Paterson. "That’s why we run Football Aid along very strict business lines. We have to innovate and develop our products constantly, look at costs and make sure that everything we do is subject to constant improvement."

As for financial targets, the goal is simply to "make as much as we can", Mr Paterson says.

Although the clubs themselves do not directly gain financially from Football Aid, the fans’ games give them content for their club media, such as websites, TV channels or match programmes. It could also act as a shoo-in for their own corporate social responsibility (CSR) agenda and may indirectly boost the club’s merchandise income.

"Everyone that participates is a consumer of the clubs, but the clubs generally do not see it from a commercial point of view; they see it as an opportunity to connect with their fans in a different way."

While the governors of the Scottish game, including the Scottish Football Association and the Scottish Premier League, were quick to also come on board, Mr Paterson believes one of the keys that unlocked a huge gate for Football Aid was the engagement of the FA Premier League in England. The Premier League’s corporate charter demands all members’ clubs honour its CSR agenda and even includes a two-page outline on the work of Football Aid.

"They saw the simplicity in it - we were not a huge corporation trying to benefit, it was a small Scottish charity trying to raise funds for charity by selling the dream of what football is all about," he says.

Another coup was in gaining the support of former England manager Sir Bobby Robson, who acts as Football Aid’s patron and Danny McGrain, a diabetic who played at football’s highest levels with Celtic and Scotland, as its vice-patron.

Given its remit to make money for charity, Football Aid selects the clubs it approaches with care. "There has to be a price point that fits our aim. If a club has, say, 8000 fans turning up each home game, the reality is that maybe only ten per cent of them would wish to play football and maybe only ten per cent of them who’d be in a position to afford to bid," explains Mr Paterson.

The cost implications for fans led Football Aid to broker relationships with business partners who’d buy the slot to reward staff or customers with or award as a prize. All 40 events lined up for this year have already sold out. The only event where bidding remains live - albeit due to close at the end of the week - is a Scotland event at Hampden on June 5, where teams will be managed and skippered by former Scotland players Gary McAllister, Paul Lambert and Danny McGrain, plus another former star yet to be revealed.

Last year, Mr Paterson’s team made Barcelona its first overseas signing, giving fans of the Catalan giants the chance to play in Nou Camp, widely recognised as one of the world’s finest football grounds.

"Bids flooded in from all over the world, so we’re now entering discussions to bring Real Madrid and Valencia on board," he says.

"The biggest clubs have the biggest fan bases, so we’re looking at narrowing the number of clubs we use but increasing the number of games we organise.

At present, Scotland and recently-signed Ireland are the only two national teams available to play for. But Football Aid is looking ahead towards the inclusion of Germany, Italy, France and Spain.

But the Mr Paterson’s dream is even wider. "I don’t see why we can’t take it to the golf and tennis industries. It’s just a matter of finding the white space in their calendars and adding value to it."

The stars lay on scoring chances

FOOTBALL Aid began in 2001 originally as a charity to help fund diabetes research after Craig Paterson’s 11-year-old son was diagnosed with the disease.

The idea sees fans across the world bid via the organisation’s website for positions in teams. Mr Paterson says bids can range from "a few hundred to a few thousand pounds" depending on the team, position wanted and demand.

The concept has also been expanded to broaden the charity base that benefits from Football Aid. "We created a multi-beneficiary model that sees 35 per cent of the money raised at each game given to the charity nominated by the host club," explains Mr Paterson.

"Another 15 per cent goes to a charity that the national football regulator is aligned with and Football Aid gets the rest."

Since launch, Football Aid games have raised more than 1.5 million, with charities such as Unicef, Yorkhill Hospital for Sick Children, the Prince’s Trust and Guide Dogs for the Blind all benefiting from a distribution of funds.

Former players including Richard Gough, Ally McCoist, Gordon McQueen, Pat Crerand, Mark Hateley, Bryan Robson, Niall Quinn and Jimmy Case have all lent their support.

Sir Bobby Robson, Football Aid’s patron, says: "The fans make football what it is. Football Aid enables the clubs to give something back to the fans - a unique opportunity to live the dream as well as contributing valuable funds to many great charities."

Positions for the forthcoming Scotland event at Hampden on June 5 are the only one of 40 events this year that are still taking live bids, with all other events sold out.

The Scotland team’s manager, Walter Smith, says: "The chance to experience football glory on a personal level at Hampden is a once in a lifetime opportunity."

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