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Sheffield Community Champions

Hallam FC are putting community first – and they’re getting results

At the oldest football ground in the world, the club's pursuit of supporter engagement and inclusion is gathering pace.

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Hallam FC's Sandygate is the oldest football ground in the world.

A couple of obvious, well-known football facts to start with, but both are worth repeating: Hallam FC, founded in 1860 and currently playing in the NCEL Premier Division (finishing a healthy ninth in their promotion season) are the second oldest football club in the world and they play at Sandygate, the oldest football ground in the world.

Yes, that's right. The oldest football ground in the world. I repeat: in the world.

Unsurprisingly the club have tremendous pride in their history, albeit those sentiments are somewhat underplayed given the seismic footballing significance involved, with only a small plaque at the turnstile entrance signifying the achievement.


Hallam FC manager Craig Denton.

That quiet humility suits a family-focused club that is unusual in terms of the importance that manager Craig Denton places on community engagement. Denton has been manager at the club for two seasons now, successfully leading Hallam to promotion last season and through a record-breaking FA Vase run this season, losing out in the fifth round after a cruel penalty shoot-out.

No Wembley for The Countrymen this year then, but that disappointment was more than offset by Denton's decision to commit himself to the club for next season. Denton's coaching qualifications and football experience are beyond question, having cut his teeth at Rainsworth, Worksop Town and, prior to Hallam, Barton Town in Lincolnshire.

"I've always been Sheffield-based, but I wanted to test myself, make things more difficult. I didn't know any player background or information about Barton Town, and ended up being dropped in to meet the players and manage the team,” Denton told Now Then.

"I'm so glad I did it as it set me up to network and create contacts through experience at the football club" he explains, showing his enthusiasm for taking on tough challenges to improve his knowledge the hard way. "I'd always wanted to manage Hallam though, and when [chairman] Richard Pillinger approached me to take the role on, I was naturally delighted to accept – especially as I wanted to engage with the local community.”

What sets Denton apart, aside from his football acumen, networking ability and coaching expertise, is his pedigree in community engagement and involvement in disability awareness and support, evidenced through a twelve-year stint at the Sheffield Wednesday Community Programme prior to becoming a non-league manager.

Twelve years in a role that at its formation was a rarity in a footballing world where fan engagement with the community and a focus on disability wasn't recognised as a priority. From this unique entry point, Denton spent time coaching in schools and developing the programme, before successfully applying for the Disability Community Officer role.

How did he get started?

"When I left college, I started as a community coach at Wednesday, focusing on building up local links with people in the S6 area, before branching out into teaching PE, delivering after-school clubs, breakfast clubs, all sorts of different initiatives,” he says.

"Then the role of Participation Manager became available, and I saw I could expand on initiatives such as social action projects working with local, vulnerable people, with a focus on health and wellbeing programmes such as challenging obesity."


The club's historic status is marked by a simple plaque at the entry to the ground.

Denton explains the quantum leap in thinking that exists today as opposed to yesteryear.

"The traditional approach would be a football coach with a bag of balls going into a school or community setting. Today, the focus includes helping address mental health issues among young people and removing restrictive isolation of elderly or physically challenged people through inclusion in walking and visually impaired football. It's these initiatives that have seen social action programmes progress so well."

One interesting aspect is the amount of freedom Denton was afforded at Sheffield Wednesday, allowing him to develop the ideas he is now looking to build on at Hallam.

"The difference was – and is – that many clubs offer communities what they feel they need, rather than listening and being inclusive as to what they actually want. It's a real difference of approach that made us stand out by offering a unique programme.”

Part of Denton's brief was to explore the then-taboo issue of anxiety among footballers, awareness of which is now commonplace with psychologists employed at elite levels of sport. His experience at Wednesday has allowed him to continue that work with players at Hallam.

"It's important to me as manager that I can use my experience to listen, support and help young players at Hallam to deal with modern day stresses and anxieties,” he tells me.

"Acquiring players compared to even 20 years ago is far different, as we have a duty to take into account their welfare, physical and mental health, understanding their educational needs and facilitating pathways for them to succeed in whatever they choose to do."

This awareness of course extends to the broader, community-based aspects of Hallam FC, not just the playing staff. Denton's pursuit of innovative local and non-local engagement reflects his commitment.

"With influential club figures such as [president] Uriah Rennie buying strongly into the community programme via his links with the FA, we all have the same goal in mind,” he says.

What more would he like to do with and for the community?

"Explore having family days in the summer, more charity get-togethers, walking and visually impaired games, and maximise the club's unique status to attract more engagement, plus further outreach.” They’re particularly interested in reaching more disabled people as well as disadvantaged communities across the city, to “let them know Hallam's a welcoming, inclusive football club.”


Denton in charge of a game.

Graciously, Denton's praise extends to those who work and volunteer for the club, none more so than Pillinger, as well as the incredible fanbase that support the club come rain or shine (mainly rain).

Modern day elite football tends to attract headlines for all the wrong reasons, with money the ever-reliable protagonist of the wrong sort of back-page tabloid stories. These scandals distance clubs from supporters and communities alike, despite best intentions.

But it's at lower league level where the community ethos of clubs like Bury and Morecambe has been the blueprint for rebirth and fan re-engagement in clubs that were on the cusp of financial extinction.

Although Hallam steer their ship through far calmer financial waters, people like Craig Denton with the imagination and awareness to deliver community-based initiatives deserve all the plaudits they receive. It's a recognition this very 21st century football manager thoroughly deserves. What's more, Hallam FC and the whole Sheffield community is all the better for it.

Learn more

Hallam FC's 1860 Bar is open throughout the summer from 2pm on Fridays and from 4pm on Saturdays and Sundays.

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