This article was originally published by These Football Times. Click here to read the piece.
Survival Sunday had come. Bottom at Christmas and five points from safety, West Bromwich Albion had clawed their way back into contention and were 90 minutes away from finally knowing their fate. Their aim was uncomplicated and unlikely in equal measure: maintain Premier League status having spent the half-way point of the season rooted to the foot of the table – a feat no team had managed since the top division had rebranded in 1992.
With stakes so high, proper preparations were key, rest and relaxation prioritised as the Baggies readied themselves for battle. Of the 16 man squad, 15 followed suit. Geoff Horsfield had other plans.
“After training on the Saturday I went straight on the site”, recalled the striker, speaking to the Independent in 2018. “I knocked an internal wall down and was putting a steel girder in at ten that night”. Horsfield, a builder before turning professional with Fulham at 24, was in the process of buying and renovating properties and had an immediate concern more pressing than Premier League survival: “the plasterers were coming in on the Monday”.
That the Baggies’ number nine went on to register a goal and an assist in a 2-0 win to complete West Brom’s great escape is a side story to the overriding message: Horsfield did not conform to the conventions of the modern footballer. It’s unsurprising, then, that his post-football career has taken him on a similarly divergent route to his former colleagues. While many professionals opt for the dugout or TV studio when retirement calls, Horsfield took a philanthropic path, helping the homeless and vulnerable communities in the Midlands by establishing his own charity, The Geoff Horsfield Foundation. It all could have been so different though…
“It really wasn’t in my mind to start the charity when I retired. I’d earned decent money – not the tens and hundreds of thousands that footballers earn now though, I’d just missed that era – so when the time came for me to retire, I asked myself “what am I going to do now?”” recalls Horsfield on a stormy morning in late February. “Initially I went to Port Vale with Micky Adams and did my coaching badges, but I soon found out I didn’t enjoy coaching so I left the game”.
Lacking direction but in need of a new career, a series of chance encounters would turn Horsfield toward his future calling.
“I didn’t know what I was doing really, but I decided to do similar maintenance work as I’d done before I turned professional, picking up jobs from a guy I met in my local pub. One day I started working for a woman who ran a house for vulnerable people in the Midlands”.
A world away from the Premier League, Horsfield was confronted by the other side of society, a houseful of people who’d slipped through the cracks and were in need of any help they could get. “A lot of them were 16 to 18 year-olds who’d been let down by care systems and ended up in supported accommodation. For these people, it just seems like they hit a brick wall. They’re suddenly in a place with no support and have to do everything by themselves. What surprised me, though, was the amount of 55 to 60 year olds who showed up at the house too. You wouldn’t believe how many turn up with just a carrier bag full of belongings, and that’s all they have. That’s their whole life. It’s absolutely devastating”.
Interacting with lodgers as he worked, Horsfield soon developed a deeper understanding of the UK’s homeless situation and the misconceptions with which many view it. “It’s an epidemic and it’s got worse over the last few years. With the private housing sector and the cost of rent, it’s so hard to get on the property ladder. What I also soon realised was just how easy it is to become homeless. A lot of people are always just a pay cheque away from losing their home”.
Experience in the trenches provided Horsfield with first-hand insight into the issue, knowledge he now uses to paint a precarious picture of a society on the edge, where a single unexpected twist or turn all that’s needed to knock someone’s life drastically off-course. “One guy we connected with was married with children and a had decent job. Then one day he fell out with his wife and couldn’t afford to pay her any money. He had no family or friends and no support network”. In other words, no hope. That’s where the Geoff Horsfield Foundation came in.
“Everyday when it was time for me to leave the house after finishing my work, the occupants would always ask me to stay and have a chat or a coffee with them. I soon came to realise that they were missing a little bit of something – they would receive money from the council but they had no purpose. So I decided to set up the Foundation, raise a bit of money doing charity events – fun runs, things like that – then use the money we raised to take them out to do activities. It evolved from there really, though I had no expectations that it would evolve the way it has”.
What started as a one-off visit consumed the following two and a half years of Horsfield’s life, providing a steep learning curve into the complexities that accompany homelessness, mental health problems and drug abuse, as well as the most effective methods by which to overcome them. Sporadic fundraisers served as initial baby steps and far more progressive strides soon developed, backed by the football community that Horsfield knew so well.
“Generally speaking, in the time I’ve been working on the Foundation, awareness around mental health has gone through the roof and I think sport is a major driving force behind that. Particularly for the Foundation, awareness really grew when we became the charity partner of Birmingham City Football Club. It’s helped massively to be associated with both Birmingham and West Brom, bringing our work to the attention of football fans. You just have to look at Sean’s story to see that”.
The ‘Sean’ of whom Geoff speaks came to the internet’s attention in January this year, a West Brom fan who had fallen on hard times. With the help of the local football ecosystem, the life-long Baggies supporter was able to attend his first game at the Hawthorns. He was also put in touch with the Foundation. “He got tickets and then we provided him with accommodation”, says Horsfield. “Hopefully he’s back on the road to recovery”. Down, but certainly not out.
The help of established football clubs has been invaluable, but Horsfield is also quick to praise the impact of his trusted team of volunteers who ensure the smooth running of daily operations. “I’ve got a lady named Debbie Green who helps me. She’s a volunteer and without her it wouldn’t have grown to the stage we’re at now. Then there’s the other volunteers. Every Monday, me and my daughter feed the homeless in Birmingham town centre and there’s always a big group of people who help give out food and drink”.
Horsfield is doing vital work, backed by an altogether different sort of team from the one which supported him in his playing days. But some tasks remain a solitary pursuit. On the morning on which we speak, Horsfield has been kept occupied by a series of leaking roofs across the Foundation’s six houses, fixing each one to ensure he upholds his promise to provide shelter from the storm in a winter that has been harsher than most. Despite the noble cause, could he ever be tempted by a financially lucrative return to the game?
“I always tell people that if someone offered me a job back in football, as an assistant coach or whatever, I wouldn’t take it. I get such satisfaction from helping people. One example, we had a guy who’d been with us for two years. He’s back up north now and has a relationship with his children that he hasn’t had for 10 or 12 years. He said that if it wasn’t for the help we gave him, he’d likely have committed suicide. To hear that kind of thing is unbelievable”.
Horsfield’s tunnel vision is intact with sights fixed firmly on the future. Thanks to fundraising efforts, the Foundation recently bought a caravan in Brean Sands, Somerset, offering mini-breaks to families with sick children, completely free of charge. They don’t plan on stopping there.
“Moving forward, we just want to help as many people as we can. It’s great when you score goals. You help your team win and put a smile on someone’s face for Saturday and maybe Sunday. But with the Foundation, it lasts their whole lives. You’re easily forgotten in football, but the work we’re doing has a far longer, bigger impact”.