Homelessness, foodbanks and community spirit: an inspiring day on the road with Wigan’s community blitz

It is 9am at Wigan’s Robin Park training complex, and the entire first-team squad are already in the building. This, however, is not going to be your average day’s pre-season training. The first real defining point in the rigorous pre-season agenda is nearly upon us: the Christmas break, and for so many people all across the world, it is the happiest time of the year. But Wigan’s players are about to experience just how challenging everyday life can be away from the glitz and glamour – if you can call training in sub-zero temperatures in mid-December that – of being a professional sportsman.

The annual Wigan Warriors Community Blitz is back for the third time, and the Warriors have invited me along to not only learn more about it, but follow the players throughout an eye-opening, inspiring and, at times, deeply upsetting, day across the town. It is an event that not only helps change lives across Wigan, but an experience that once involved with it, you are never likely to forget in a hurry.

Arrival at Robin Park – following an unsurprising early-morning delay on the M62 – is just after 9am: by which time, the eight teams of four filled with Wigan players, club officials and coaches are already out on their first task of the day across the 11 different projects planned by the club’s foundation staff. Mike Wearden is the club’s foundation manager. “It’s all about giving back to the community the best we can,” he explains to me. “We engage with these projects all-year-round. But on a day like today, we want to get our players embracing these projects. We work closely with the local Council to try and improve the borough the best we can. It’s about helping and improving peoples’ lives. There will people who are Wigan fans, and people who won’t be – but we’re trying to make a difference to them no matter who they are, even if it’s just for a day.”

My first port of call is arguably my most important. I head across town to The Brick, which is a project that offers a range of services to people who are homeless, in poverty or facing debt crisis. Homelessness is a topic high on the agenda of most people at present; at least 135,000 children will be homeless and living in temporary accommodation across Britain on Christmas Day alone. The amount of people living on the streets in this country has never been higher, and over 700 people died on the streets of England and Wales last year. But this is something you do not understand until you experience what is happening at the forefront of the battle to tackle homelessness.

One of the teams I am following includes Warriors captain Sean O’Loughlin, who is taking part in the Blitz for the first time. “It’s a real honour and something I’m enjoying,” O’Loughlin tells me later in the day when the players break for lunch. Wigan’s players were asked a fortnight ago to donate as much festive food and spare clothing as they could for today. Club officials tell me that O’Loughlin, ever the leader, was inspirational in whipping up as much effort as he could to support a local charity.

The players’ jobs at The Brick are roughly two-fold. One team, with O’Loughlin involved, go across town to various outlets providing food packages and essentials to a food bank. It is a sentence you can barely believe you are writing in 2019: that food banks are still in need of supplies and support – but that is the grim reality facing towns all across the country, not just Wigan. “The most poignant and emotional moment of this for me was going into that food bank,” O’Loughlin recalls.

“I went in, thinking we were sure we’d have loads of stuff that would provide people with supplies for weeks, but then they told us that with the amount of people who were needing this, it would all be gone within a matter of days. That’s how many people out there are battling poverty and homelessness – and that’s just in the Wigan area. You don’t quite realise how many people rely on this until you see it first-hand. It was an emotional eye-opener for me.”

The upsetting scenes do not stop there. “It struck a chord with me when I saw a stockpile of nappies, and was told in no uncertain terms that parents were in desperate need of them because they just couldn’t afford to buy them,” O’Loughlin reveals. “It pulls on the heartstrings.” Fellow forward Tony Clubb was also involved with The Brick in the morning’s activities. He and several of his team-mates spent time building furniture that had been donated to the project in order to provide support for people battling homelessness and poverty.

“We live very privileged lives and you realise when you speak to people in homeless shelters that you’re not just fortunate to play sport, you’re fortunate to go home and have running water, have a car you can drive and have things people take for granted,” he admits. “I was watching the news this morning, and people were saying homelessness is at an all-time high. How can that be a thing in 2019? Doing this, giving up a day of our time, is the least we can do. It’s been very interesting and quite emotional to see some of what’s happening out in the town.”

After The Brick, it’s off to see some other teams helping a gardening project – which includes the clean-up of a garden for veterans. “At this time of the year the leaves on the ground can make it quite treacherous for the elderly, so they are always someone we consider,” Claire Taylor, an employee at the foundation, reveals. Then it’s back to Robin Park to see Clubb again – who is helping create a memory garden behind the pitch where Wigan’s first-team train. Watching Clubb quite literally rip trees out of the grounds with his bare hands was a rare moment of laughter in a morning otherwise filled with emotion.

This will include features such as a sensory area, for people battling with dementia, and even a contemplation zone for people struggling to cope with bereavement. Robin Park is a recently-redeveloped mutli-million-pound facility for Wigan’s elite athletes: but in time, it will also become a place where the community can come and feel welcome, too. “It’ll be open to the public all the time, and while you won’t be able to just come in, we will have sessions where we’ll educate people about various things,” Taylor says. “People will have a space where they can come to and contemplate, reflect or just feel part of the community.”

We break for lunch, where the players actively share stories about their morning’s work, and there is a chance to speak with Wearden about what’s coming up next. “Kris Radlinski really enforces this day because he likes to keep the players grounded, and remind them that they are a privileged group to have the careers and lives they do,” he admits. “The under-18s go out into part-time jobs to show what’s going on in the real world and a day like this. It’s a vital part of our club’s philosophy and we’ve had other clubs ask how we do it.”

Post-lunch, the first port of call for all the teams are local schools, which is a shift from the emotional scenes seen at The Brick earlier in the day. “We’re putting Christmas trees up for the kids, taking some selection boxes and getting quizzed by them on all sorts… it’s fun,” Clubb admits. After that, the teams split up to attend various projects again – including a heart-warming visit to a local hospice, where some of the residents get to meet their local heroes: a theme that is recurring throughout the day.

Whether it is at The Brick, in the local gardens with the Green Crew – a group that help people with long-term mental health problems – or even in Preston Hospital later in the day, you gradually learn to love that this is a club who are very much in touch with their local community. The players are heroes to many people we cross paths with throughout the day: one told me they’d mention the fact they met Liam Farrell to their friends for days to come. It is an emotional journey, but a heart-warming one at the same time. “We have a massive appreciation for the people of Wigan because of what they give us both emotionally and financially,” Clubb says. “We have to stay in touch with the local communities, be aware of these kinds of things happening in our local area and try and strike up as good a relationship as possible.”

In the evening, it’s back to Robin Park: where Wigan’s players – who have now been doing the Community Blitz for well over nine hours – are in no mood to go home yet as they have a session with the club’s PDRL team before we finish on a high note. All 16 community clubs in the local area are invited to meet the first-team and train with them. By 9pm, 12 hours after starting, the day is drawing to a close: much earlier than last year, when Adrian Lam and a group of players headed to a local church and helped paint it until well after midnight. It’s community spirit at its very best, and you can’t help but tip your hat to the Warriors for the way they engage with so many people with a variety of needs.

“We’re trying to tick as many things off as we can to connect with the communities in the town and people who are in need,” O’Loughlin says. “It’s a day out of our comfort zone but it’s a day really well spent.” These are the things you don’t see and don’t hear about professional sportsmen – but in Wigan’s case, it underlines why they are a club that their town should be proud of. From the harrowing scenes in homeless shelters to the smiles on faces of local community clubs when they meet their heroes, as I’m driving back across the Pennines, I can’t help but think this is a day I won’t forget in a hurry.