FOOTBALLERS often get a bad press for taking their rewards from the game and retiring into a life of gated-communities and winters on Paradise islands.
On the whole it’s a very unfair caricature of men who have given up the best years of their youth to be dedicated professionals in reaching the very pinnacle of a sport played by almost every schoolboy.
What they do after their careers has come to an end should be of no concern to the average armchair fan.
But there’s always a cry of people wanting ex-footballers to ‘give something back’. And here’s the thing, most of them do.
Whether it’s moving into coaching or management at the top level, being an ambassador for their former club on match-days or just running their son’s Sunday league team the vast majority stay associated with the game.
And then there are others like Sheffield United’s newly appointed head of community Mark Todd who take it to a new level.
Todd is in charge of The Sheffield United Community Foundation, a charity working in the areas of sport participation, education, health and social inclusion, which is linked to the Blades. Working out of an office on the corner of Bramall Lane and John Street, 45-year-old Todd talks as passionately about his new role as he did patrolling the midfield for United in the late 1980s. He said using football as a powerful force in the community is often the only way of getting through to disadvantaged children: “We work with a variety of partners across the city, who offer us great support.
“Obviously our closest relationship is with Sheffield United but as one of 72 across the country – under the Football League Trust banner – we see our role as being very much at the heart of the community whether that is with South Yorkshire Police, NHS Sheffield or businesses.”
Last year more than 36,000 people from across the city were involved in a project organised by Todd and his team.
“Our aim is to build links between the football club and the community using the appeal of football and sport in general,” he said. “Sport is a highly motivational tool and can encourage, motivate and inspire individuals regardless of background to achieve their potential.”
Leadership is one of sport’s greatest benefits. Todd, who started his professional career with Manchester United in 1984, was able to observe at close quarters one of football’s most successful managers. He was at Old Trafford when Alex Ferguson replaced Ron Atkinson as the Red Devils’ boss in 1986 and saw the power that one man can have.
“He totally turned the club around,” said Todd. “He literally turned everything on its head and focused on all aspects of the club.
“There was an immediate different atmosphere around the club.”
Todd, who lives at Worrall with partner Caroline and children Emma, aged nine, and Oliver, seven, is obviously associated with the Blades through his time playing with the club and his work behind the scenes culminating in his current role.
However, he maintains close links with Sheffield Wednesday and believes it is important that the two professional city clubs work together.
Todd, who is originally from Belfast, said: “I’ve been in Sheffield for 25 years and it’s home.
“I know a lot of people around the city and some of those who used to watch me as supporters I now consider friends and colleagues. Lads like (Oxford United boss) Chris Wilder have been a big influence on me and we’re still in regular contact. I have a great team working with me.
“Pat Piearcey, Chris Bailey and Keith Ward in the senior team are all experienced and specialised in their own areas.
“I know Macca (the Owls’ community manager Marcus Brameld) well. Our families are close and we often go out. Our careers (Brameld himself a talented midfielder with an eye for goal was also on the books of Manchester United) get talked about but in Macca’s case it’s usually a quick conversation!”
This type of football banter is how Todd is able to combine the management role with still having the wit to deal with kids who see themselves very much of ‘the street’.
It’s a rare gift and one that helps, alongside Brameld, to enable the two clubs to prosper together. “We often have people who support Wednesday on our schemes but it’s not about that (a footballing rivalry),” said Todd.
“It’s about the quality of the programmes that we provide and ensuring that everyone we deal with leaves us with a positive experience.
“We’re in a really busy period at the moment, in fact I’ve never known it as busy.
“We’re working with the National Citizen Service which teaches Year 11s and 12s new skills and prepares them for life after education.”
While Todd would agree that the best years of a footballers’ life are playing the game – he still turns out for Sheffield FC over 35s – there can be nothing more rewarding than using a sport he loves to influence someone’s life.
He said: “I really enjoy what I do. We provide a bit of hope to kids who may not think they have any.
“Football is a great sport and it can get to places that other methods can’t.”
The aims of the Sheffield United Community Foundation are to:
Offer innovative programmes in the key areas of sport participation, health, education and social inclusion
Build links between the football club and the community using the appeal of football and sport in general.
Use sport as a motivational tool to encourage, motivate and inspire individuals regardless of background to reach their potential – “Inspiring your future through sport”
Promote healthy and active lifestyles through sport
Offer programmes aimed at developing personal skills, improving academic achievement and enhancing employability
Engage with people regardless of age, ability, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability.
Support pathways for player development from grassroots and community football
Act as positive role models at all times and be a valued contributor to the community wellbeing