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My life as a football club chaplain

Why sports clubs need priests

You’re what?’ ‘What do you do?’ ‘Why do they need one of those?’ These are some of the questions I was asked when I first became the chaplain of Scunthorpe United Football Club in 2002, a position I’ve held ever since. At that time, there were fewer than one hundred sports chaplains across the United Kingdom, mainly in football, but some in Rugby Union, Rugby League, cricket and, er, horse racing. Now there are nearly a thousand.

Not all managements are happy with chaplaincy. Several Premier League clubs don’t have one

So what does a chaplain do? I like to think that a chaplain loiters. I realise that in other spheres, loitering with intent may well be a criminal activity, but in a stadium, loitering often means just being there. Just as hospital chaplains and services padres never know exactly what will come their way, neither does a sports chaplain. Just as with other forms of chaplaincy, sports chaplains are there to minister to the needs of those in their charge. We’re not there just to serve the players; we’re as interested in the ground staff, the cleaners and the chef, and of course the spectators.

No chaplains are paid, therefore we are not employees of a club. That is a vital distinction, as no-one can accuse us of being on any one side. What is said to a chaplain is confidential and no chaplain would breach that confidence. If an especially serious matter were brought to our attention, then the chaplain would work with the person to try to find a way forward. There must be no suspicion that a chaplain will go running to the manager telling tales.

The modern sports chaplaincy movement started with the then-manager of Watford FC, Graham Taylor, who believed that a football club was more than just a sports team; it should embrace the whole community. He approached a young local Baptist minister, Rev’d John Boyers, who came on board as the first chaplain at Watford. He supported players and staff during Watford’s unbelievable rise to the top of the English league in 1977 and was eventually poached by Manchester United, where he outlasted Sir Alex Ferguson. John was the chaplain at Gary Neville’s wedding and took his grandfather’s funeral too.

Not all managements are happy with chaplaincy. Several Premier League clubs don’t have one, and have never had one, which is a pity. A chaplain can offer something different from a PR department. Heaven forbid that there should be a medical emergency, but it is here that a chaplain can fill the breach. I know that that chaplain of Bolton Wanderers FC was very heavily involved with Fabrice Muamba and his family when the player collapsed on the pitch in March 2012. I am currently helping to arrange the funeral of a long-serving volunteer at Scunthorpe United.

Rev Wright at Scunthorpe United’s grounds
Rev Wright at Scunthorpe United’s grounds

I’ve been interested in football all my life; I never was a player, being far too small and weedy, but I used to act as linesman at school, and as a scorer in cricket. My Premier League team is Arsenal, chosen back in 1950 because they were first alphabetically. However, I used to go and watch Fulham play at Craven Cottage in the time of Jonny Haynes and George Cohen. Since then, I watched Hull City when I was a university student in that city; on moving to Scunthorpe, I followed them, starting in 1969. My first game was a League Cup home game… against Arsenal, with the home team on the end of a drubbing. Four visits with Scunthorpe to Wembley (two at the old stadium and two at the new one) have seen two wins and two defeats.

I do get to witness many of the things that regular spectators do not. I’m in the players’ tunnel before all home games and see the antics and gamesmanship that goes on. I greet each player – only Scunthorpe of course – before the warm up, and I’ll go into the officials’ room to wish them a good game. Sometimes, officials are a little standoffish, but usually we’ll all have a laugh together.

On one occasion I got caught out. Scunthorpe were playing Manchester City at home in a cup game, which was televised. I was approached before the game by the floor manager to see if I would do a live interview during halftime. After I’d agreed, I was informed that the interviewer would start off by asking a specific question, and was told what it would be. I spent a chunk of the first half rehearsing in my mind how to answer it, as I didn’t want to look too much of a fool live on television. When it came to halftime, the interviewer asked a completely different question and I tried my best not to fumble the discussion.

So far, I’ve not mentioned religion. A chaplain is not there to ram religion down anyone’s throat or to bible bash; he or she responds to the needs of those around them, whatever they may be. All that being said, I’m now praying for a good season with the mighty Iron.