“What we did there was survival stuff,” he says. “We had money, so we gave our partner schools £10,000 of un-ring-fenced money. We told them, “Go serve your community, the most vulnerable children…show them a glimmer of light in a dire situation. What came back were stories of buying washing machines, bedding, curtains, food.
“I remember a mom with a 20-year-old daughter with Down syndrome. She said: “I had Covid, and the creative arts pack the school sent helped us through that.” The pack was literally paper plates, paint brush, glue, sticker paper. Two pounds. And it allowed the mother to overcome Covid without having to worry about her daughter. For two pounds.
Then there was the tons of food sent out into the community, day in and day out – much of it prepared by the club’s executive chef, James Tagg. “The Sir Alex Ferguson stand was like a supermarket,” Shiels marvels. “There were three huge articulated refrigerated trucks outside. It was extremely inspiring and motivating to be part of it.
This work really touched the fans, especially at a time when elite football was on hiatus. But Shiels says there will be no big 15th birthday parties this weekend, and warns conditions are even worse for children in Greater Manchester than before the pandemic. “The message is: we just need to be motivated to do more,” he insists.
‘More’ includes a pilot project in Derry/Londonderry, through a partnership with the University of Ulster. It aims to supervise children from 5 to 21 years old, the age at which they will have obtained a diploma from the Foundation. Each child will benefit from the support of the Foundation at each stage of their schooling, to try to prevent them from falling off the radar when they move from primary to secondary school, for example.
“We want our academic partners to research this,” says John. “If we find that children who attend these ‘supported’ schools do better, then this should be considered a new system of education. This support team does not have to wear Manchester United Foundation tracksuits. It could be other influential organizations, it could be the biggest employer in town. But I think it could be a way to connect the world of education with the world of adults.