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Friday 03 Apr 2020
‘We are continuing the elements of our work that are feasible at this stage’: Michael Boyd

With most of its staff usually out and about staging everything from coaching sessions to educational workshops and small-sided games, the Irish FA Foundation is having to implement a new style of working during the coronavirus outbreak.

As is the case for many people in Northern Ireland right now, face to face meetings have had to be shelved and video conferences have become the norm.

However, working online from home does not mean the foundation’s work has eased off, as Michael Boyd, Director of Football Development at the foundation, explains in this in-depth interview:

How is the Irish FA Foundation continuing its work at present?

It has been a challenging few weeks for everyone and makes you think about what is really important in life. For most of us it has been a time for prioritising family, friends and community. Their health and wellbeing are ultimately what is really important. Football, as much as we all love it, pales into insignificance when compared to the important work of health professionals and care workers at this time.

It is very difficult for our foundation to continue to do a lot of our development work in the community with our partners at this time. Participation programmes, player development sessions and coach education programmes are all suspended for now. I feel for all the sports clubs, businesses and community groups struggling to survive this crisis.

The main priority at the moment is the health and safety of our volunteers, partners and staff. These are unprecedented times and we are navigating uncertain waters.

As a director I am a member of the Irish FA’s Strategic Leadership Team and the Irish FA Coronavirus Response Group.

We meet every morning via Microsoft Teams. We discuss key issues that need to be addressed, record them and filter any decisions on to the wider team and football family. From a crisis management point of view I think we are working effectively as a team and putting safety and welfare of all top of the agenda.

All of us in the foundation are currently working from home using phone, email and Microsoft Teams to connect with one another and to continue the elements of our work that are feasible at this stage.

We continue to plan for future events and prepare resources to deliver remotely if necessary. We are currently focused on the following:

Football Development and Schools

  • Developing video and email support for clubs, volunteers, parents and players;
  • Being part of the community planning for the association particularly in the area around the stadium;
  • Planning and preparing for the restart of programmes in summertime;
  • Developing new strategies for disability football and community relations work;
  • Developing a new coaching curriculum for our Electric Ireland Shooting Stars centres for girls;
  • Developing criteria for clubs to become Shooting Stars centres;
  • Education officers in constant contact with staff/pupils and parents of Ashfield Boys IFA Development School delivering joint BTEC;
  • Sending assignment briefs and lessons via email to pupils to ensure continuation and time constraints of BTEC are met;
  • Marking and redistributing students’ work via email;
  • Organising and distributing certificates to schools who have now completed our Education & Employability programme;
  • Planning and preparing for next academic year, maintaining contact with schools/colleges;
  • Designing and distributing end of year surveys to school staff and pupils.

 Stay Onside Crime Prevention 

  • The Stay Onside team have been working with partners including the Prison Service and PSNI in agreeing funding for 2020/21. All partners are fully committed in providing grant funding for the delivery of programmes in prison and the community when we are fully operational again;
  • Liaison with IFA Communications Team. Delivery of a new social media package for Stay Onside which includes three new videos – first video was broadcast this week;
  • Developing a programme template which outlines modules, costs and how success is measured. This will be used to promote Stay Onside in the community with the aim of expanding delivery and increasing funding opportunities throughout all Football Community Hub areas;
  • Working on the Irish FA Strategic Plan, ensuring Stay Onside meets future aims and objectives;
  • Developing a Minority Ethnic Development Fund application to enhance engagement with BAME communities, PSNI, KickOff@3 and the Rio Ferdinand Foundation.

I also have responsibility for Elite Girls Player Development and the senior women’s team. We are providing weekly support for all our elite girls during this crisis.

What programmes have had a smooth transition to the online working environment?

Our Department of Education-funded Schools Sports Programme and our Education and Employability Programme have transitioned well at this time. These include updating of resources, creation of a curriculum calendar and development of classroom materials and online video content. We are also due to start an external research project with Physical Intelligence in April, much of which can continue online and via phone.

The Sport Uniting Communities PEACE IV project, which also involves Ulster GAA and Ulster Rugby, has had a relatively smooth transition as well to working from home. We obviously cannot deliver on various strands of our programme that are participation based but continue to deliver and plan for those that can be delivered remotely.

The Grants Officer’s programme is working smoothly developing future grants applications and supporting clubs and community groups with guidance at this difficult time.

Our Stay Onside programme has also transitioned well, providing ongoing support online to graduates and partners. This support is critical for their mental health.

Support for all our elite girls and the senior women’s team is ongoing too and has transitioned well. Girls’ and women’s football player development remains a top priority for us. Providing the tools and challenges for the players to develop themselves and stay positive is important.

The Irish FA Foundation’s Ahead of the Game mental health campaign and our Department for Communities-backed Club and Volunteer development programmes are adapting well. We are developing new online resources and platforms to engage people, such as the new People and Clubs platform on www.irishfa.com.

Have any programmes been put on hold during the current health crisis?

Unfortunately most of our participation programmes are on hold for now. During a normal week we would have more than 70,000 people playing football through our programmes in more than 60 venues across the country.

Our Stay Onside programme was delivered in custodial centres up until last week and is now currently on hold. Due to the importance of engagement with prisoners it is envisaged this will be the first programme to relaunch across prison establishments when it is deemed safe to do so.

The Stay Onside community programme has been put on hold due to delivery being based in the classroom and on the pitch. However, we provide online contact which is critically important for the mental health of our participants and graduates.

The KickOff@3 tournament and event planned for 19April has been suspended until September.

We have also had to cancel this year’s George Best Community Cup scheduled for June. It’s the largest disability football tournament in the UK.

How are you keeping your various partners involved in your work?

I am in constant contact with funders and other partners via email, telephone and video conference.

We are also in regular contact with community groups and other stakeholders to see how we can help.

There is daily engagement with Stay Onside statutory and non-statutory partners. Partners are provided with updates on programme development and delivery. This is important as partners still want to plan ahead and inform potential participants of the programme and its benefits.

Partners are also encouraged to share social media content. We have been innovative in developing engaging new online content with our partners and the Irish FA Communications Team, such as the weekly Electric Ireland Shooting Stars skill challenges.

Are there any new programmes in the pipeline?

We have been working closely with Ulster GAA to amend our Department of Education Schools Sports Programme work plan for the first quarter of this new financial year and the relevant documentation has been submitted to the Department of Education, who will be updated weekly on the work that we are doing, ie resources, online content, external research, staff development.

We are communicating with sponsors and partners to discuss how we can continue to support one another and the wider community.

We currently plan to restart our work experience programme at the beginning of the next academic year. We usually support more than 100 students a year with structured work experience programmes.

There are new modules for Stay Onside being developed. Agreement has been reached to include a Sports Leaders award and integrate other Irish FA Foundation modules into the programme.

A funding application has been submitted to the Tackling Paramilitarism and Organised Crime Task Force for the delivery of a programme with DOJ, PSNI, DFC and sporting partners GAA, Ulster Rugby and Belfast Giants.  

We are also submitting an application to the European Football for Development Network which will secure funding for an Erasmus project. The project will share good practice around social responsibility and enable us to host two events per year over a 30-month period to showcase our work to the wider footballing community throughout Europe.

How are you motivating staff during these difficult times?

I think keeping in regular contact with staff via video conferencing keeps people feeling involved and motivated.

We have put together a work plan for the next three months that includes detail for the weeks ahead (April) and possible plans for beyond (May and June). Having a schedule has helped staff see that there is still a working plan in place and structure to their weeks. Also looking at this time as an opportunity rather than a crisis has been key. There are areas of our programmes that staff want to develop but the reality is their working week just doesn’t allow it. Seeing this as a time to get stuck in to the planning aspect of various projects has been important.

Identifying areas for staff development has been key for the work we will get back to but also in terms of motivating staff. They are signposting one another to free/online courses to develop learning at this time. I am proud of how the team have all pulled together. I have more than 60 full time staff under my leadership. Their attitude throughout this crisis has been first class.

Regular communication and meetings, and check-ins both formally and casually, means staff can go about their work but also allows me to acknowledge the other challenges this Covid-19 crisis is bringing, such as looking after children while working from home or caring for at risk/vulnerable family members. It has been important to allow staff time for this also.

As the current situation is very fluid, making sure they have received up to date information has been important, too. Feeling ‘in the loop’ has helped settle some uncertainty. There has been some fun and appropriate banter on WhatsApp as well.

Our Education & Employability officers are working hard to ensure workload is being completed for schools like Ashfield High, our new Football Development School. They are in contact with the schools and students daily to ensure work is completed.

We have weekly online full team meetings for work updates, motivation and sharing of ideas.

Social media interaction, especially sharing of ideas, resources and positivity, has kept morale up. These weekly meetings on Microsoft Teams have ensured new and existing business has been discussed and ideas shared. It has very quickly become the norm for us all.

Staff have also been in regular contact with a number of Stay Onside volunteers who have either been recently released from prison or carry out the role of Stay Onside ambassadors.  It is important we maintain contact in order to provide them with support due to some of them not having a stable lifestyle. This also includes contact with some family members. This unseen work is literally saving lives in the community and is of vital importance.

Have you any message for the grassroots, amateur and youth football family?

Yes, please all stay safe and stay at home. We shall get through this together and we shall appreciate our wonderful sport and the friendships it creates even more. I have been so impressed by how creative and innovative the youth football community and amateur game have been in recent weeks sharing skills challenges and stories online.

The Irish FA Foundation exists to serve the Northern Ireland public through the sport of football. We use sport as a hook to promote community relations, education, employability, positive mental health and football for all.

For now we must serve you remotely and online but we dream of the day we can get back to the normal business of serving you in person. Keep smiling and sharing your skills online.

Image: Michael Boyd with the Duke of Cambridge during the Royal visit to the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park in February 2019.