Woolston: This was the time to give something back
For many footballers, the fact the country was plunged into crisis as COVID-19 took hold was an opportunity to give something back to the community.
As Manchester United captain Harry Maguire has told us previously, a number of players are regularly involved in charity work but this was a time when action was urgently required. Marcus Rashford's high-profile lobbying of the government has provided immeasurable help to children across the country but his team-mates at all levels have also reacted in a way to make the club proud.
The Academy has raised funds for the production of protective equipment for GPs, nurses and care-home workers, in addition to covering 4,556 miles, the distance between Manchester and Mumbai, to make a donation to Indian communities affected by coronavirus.
Meanwhile, for Under-23s goalkeeper Paul Woolston, this was a chance to embrace the overriding message of positivity and assist those in need where he grew up, in the north east.
Although he may have formerly been on Newcastle United's books, the 21-year-old is a big Sunderland fan and has joined forces with the Fans' Museum in the city to provide a boost to the local community.
“By visiting there and listening to what they were trying to do, I thought it was great to attempt to help,” he told us.
“Going out into the community, delivering food is something I wanted to do. This community has given me the chance to play football, represent England, all the way through to being at Manchester United. Although it's in the smallest way, meeting people and putting smiles on their faces means a lot more than what people think it does.
“Football is really important up here,” he laughed, with a sense of understatement.
“Football or nothing! I've been listening to the stories about games people went to, but also general chit-chat about their families. Some of the people might not have seen anyone for seven or eight weeks so it's about knocking on their doors to spend some precious time with them. Some will get photos out and talk about ex-players and show me medals and things like that.
“I've been a Sunderland supporter through and through and, no matter where I am, I'll always have a soft spot for the club,
“ added Woolston.This museum is based in Sunderland but it's not only for Sunderland fans. The best thing is seeing people come in trying the shirts on and they might be from abroad. They will pop in and the shirt will bring back memories of their family, who might live somewhere else.
“Football means a lot to a lot of people. It's hard seeing games played behind closed doors but it's the way it's got to be. Now it's back, I know a lot of people will be much happier.
“I think you can't sit back and be negative at times like this. I know it's hard but you have to try to be positive. If you can look forward to the next day, or this date coming up, it lifts everything. I'm trying to think how can I help - if someone is feeling down, sit back and understand by helping them think in a positive way. This has been hard for everyone. If someone says it hasn't been hard, they're lying. None of us expected something like this.
“I know it's easier said than done but this time feels like a lot longer than when it does if you're thinking positively about how to make a change today.
Michael Ganley, the founder of the Fans' Museum, knows the region will appreciate the benefit of Rashford's work in helping to obtain meal vouchers throughout the school summer holidays. He has been driving the food delivery project and is delighted Woolston has provided his personal support.
“The last four months have been very testing,” he told us.
“I decided one day that enough is enough and I contacted schools to see how we could deliver packed lunches for kids. We wanted to do more so we started to speaking to care homes, and this is where Paul got on board with us. We just went out each day but it was more than delivering food. It's meeting people who have been in lockdown and boosting their morale.
“There are 2,000 match-worn shirts in our collection and people come in and try some of these United shirts - David Beckham donated one of his from 2001 as part of the Bobby Moore Trust - and you can see when visitors pull it on, they can't believe they're wearing the exact shirt and it gives them inspiration.
“Paul has gathered a lot of thoughts from meeting with older guys, who appreciate any footballer or any professional person. They get an insight into his mindset, training and health. He can now gain a lot of experience about fans' rituals and he is one of these guys with real hunger, which is what we love. Manchester United are the biggest club in the world and we've got representation from them with Paul coming here, so it's amazing.
“The full country is under more scrutiny with the approach towards food and wastage and there is an amazing food bank in Sunderland,” Ganley added.
“It was a reality check for people and it's taken a pandemic for everybody to understand this but the support and rallying around has been amazing. With the schools being closed, some of these kids need their food and it's why we wanted to get involved with them straight away.
“We've been seeing a lot in the press about malnutrition and what Marcus has done has created a stir. Sometimes it takes someone like Marcus to do it and other people will wake up. Rightly so, even if he shouldn't really have to do it. We're seeing what it entails in the north east and it's not going to go away quickly. It's like this throughout the country but, knowing the city very well, Sunderland has, without a doubt, been hit hard.”
Woolston is also full of admiration for Rashford's efforts in overturning the government's original plan to stop the food vouchers for schoolchildren.
“What Marcus did was brilliant,” he said.
“He might not know it but it will help where I'm from massively. What he has done is brilliant but it's just a case of where a majority of footballers get a bad press and it's something that is not really fair. I just wanted to come and help, I didn't want anyone to know, but I want to give something back to the community and just be there. That is the biggest thing - just being there for someone.”
Woolston hopes he will soon be able to return to action with United's Under-23s but is being helped by the other members of the goalkeepers' union as he counts down the days to coming back to the Aon Training Complex.
“As footballers, we want to play football,” he stressed.
“All we want is to play and not being able to do that for so long is frustrating.
“Everyone has been brilliant - David, Sergio and Granty, all the way down to the younger keepers. We're keeping in touch and trying to listen to what we have to say and seeing how your day is going. It's a union and a tight-knit group so we stick together. We see each other every day for longer than the others and Lee has been brilliant for me because he went through the same injury, with a shoulder operation, so I've been speaking to him about what I should and shouldn't be doing. His experience has been a great help.
“The Under-23s group have a catch-up every other week and it's just a bit of craic that cheers everybody up. We had a great season and deserve to be promoted. Even if we're not, it can't take away the achievements but hopefully we'll be back and maybe celebrating going up. If not, we'll see what happens - it was brilliant last year but it's time to kick on and see what we can achieve next season.
“Kieran [O'Hara] and Alex [Fojticek] are moving on to different clubs but they will always be a part of us and we'll always be there to support them. That's the type of people we are as goalkeepers - I know Kieran and Alex will go out and have great careers and show how good they are.”
To find out how Manchester United Foundation is helping the local community, head to mufoundation.org.