AFC Masters was set up by Iain Massingham in 2005. Iain, who works with Bolton Social Services, identified that there was a lack of accessible sports provision in the borough for children and adults with disabilities.
What started as three people having a kickabout on a Wednesday afternoon has now grown into a 100-strong club. AFC Masters runs three sessions over two days every week at the indoor facility at St Joseph’s School in Horwich, with a further session at Castle Hill. The club regularly plays competitive fixtures and is affiliated to the Lancashire Football Association. AFC Masters welcomes players from the age of five, to over 50!
Iain says, “I started the group as I had a few service users who wanted to get more active. There wasn’t anything suitable for them in Horwich, so we started having a kickabout together. Just something fun, that was accessible for all.
“Getting active is really important and can be even more so when you have a disability, as there aren’t as many options out there for you. But it’s not just about moving more, AFC Masters is more than that. We’re about friendship, making connections in the community, building confidence and providing a support network for our members and their carers. It’s about mental, as well as physical health.
“From our humble beginnings we have grown! We’ve got several volunteer coaches and other volunteers who help manage the club. We say AFC Masters is like a big family – which is true, as I’ve even got my dad to come and help out now that he’s retired!”
However, with lockdown Iain needed to think fast about how they’d keep the club going.
Iain continues, “Suddenly the focal point of a lot of people’s week was taken away from them. A lot of our members have physical and mental conditions, so even though some grassroots football could return, we haven’t been able to take that step.
“Many of our players are missing being able to get together, to socialise and of course, to play football and keep healthy. For some of our players their weekly session may be the only opportunity they get to leave the house or get active during the week. The support and time out we give to their families is being missed as well. AFC Masters isn’t just for the players, but their families and carers too.
“At first we thought it was just going to last a month or so, but as we saw the way 2020 was shaping up to be, we knew we had to do something.”
Iain and the team at AFC Masters have done more than ‘something.’
To compensate for the absence of football, Iain and some of the volunteers have utilised social media to ensure the communal, interactive side of the club continues. Iain kicks off the week on Monday teatime with the interactive ‘Brew Chat’ on the group’s closed Facebook page. He and a guest player or a friend of the Club answer various questions and discuss topics sent in by other members of the Club.
On Thursdays, Bolton FM presenter Jim Bailey and his housemate Casper Mason host a quiz, with AFC Masters’ alumnus Neil Stallard preparing many of the questions.
Every Saturday night club members get dressed up and decorate their living rooms, whilst DJ Phil Grimshaw performs a set online, enabling everyone to have a night out by staying in. Dancing is very much encouraged, as it’s a fun way to get the body moving.
Some of the players have also pitched in to help. Amy has been teaching sign language and Dylan has been providing a joke of the day, while coach Josh Podmore and Ste Haslam have taught a different football skill each week. There have even been cook-along sessions too.
In addition, Iain and the other organisers have put on events such as a Halloween party, the AFC’s Got Talent Show and an online awards evening, replete with party bags, puzzles and medals delivered to each of the club’s members’ houses.
Iain says, “It’s been really fun coming up with weekly online meet-ups and different virtual events. Some of our players struggle to have an independent social life, so this gives them the opportunity to keep connected. We try to offer a mixture of activities – some aimed at moving, some at living a healthy life, but a lot of the are centred around fun and friendship.
“Lockdown has been hard on everyone. As it dragged on, we noticed that the mental health of some of our members really dropped, especially those who were shielding. We’ve coupled the online group with ringing round the most isolated or vulnerable, to make sure they’re ok and have everything they need.
“It’s been hard to be apart and we can’t wait to get back together and kick a ball around, however being part of a flourishing online family brings its own joys. We see our members making friendships they might not have done when just coming to the club, we’ve got players starting their own independent online games groups and we have provided a space for people who, for various reasons, might not be able to take part in our football sessions.
“We’ll meet again for football, but until then our friendships are flourishing and we’re most definitely having a lot of fun.”
Prior to the training, many non-medical/community-facing staff didn't feel confident in discussing movement and physical activity within their work.
Across England, sports clubs and organisations are being supported by a new network of Sport Welfare Officers. They have been recruited by Active Partnerships and funded by Sport England through an investment of National Lottery money.