On Monday morning, the Plymouth dressing room will not be home to players or coaching staff gearing up for a promotion push but rather National Health Service nurses welcoming the first wave of antenatal patients.
The League Two club have handed over the use of their new grandstand to the NHS to ease the strain on the city’s Derriford hospital amid the coronavirus crisis, with the Home Park boardroom temporarily moonlighting as a phlebotomy clinic and the conference hall doubling up as a waiting room.
A fortnight ago Dr Jonathan Cope, the associate medical director for primary care at University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust, approached the club in search of alternative facilities and, following conversations between the club’s chief executive, Andrew Parkinson, and the chairman, Simon Hallett, Plymouth soon put wheels in motion to ease pressure on one of Devon’s primary hospitals by transforming the redeveloped grandstand, which was completed in December at a cost of £8m, into a clinical environment.
“Home Park can be used for important and routine services such as blood tests and all of the things people require outside of the emergency side of things at the hospital, which unfortunately is going to have a lot of footfall over the coming weeks,” Parkinson says. “It will serve a purpose to help those day-to-day services keep running, allowing the hospital to focus on emergencies.”
Manchester City, Watford and Forest Green are among a clutch of clubs to make a similar gesture, with the NHS set to use the Etihad Stadium to train doctors and nurses during the pandemic, while Swansea have offered use of the Liberty Stadium to the emergency services with football suspended until at least 30 April. The Principality Stadium in Cardiff will be converted into an emergency field hospital, while London’s ExCel conference centre will house 4,000 temporary beds.
Stevenage of League Two have launched a hotline for the over-70s to signpost services and offer food deliveries, with the club’s chief executive, Alex Tunbridge, saying: “We are no longer a football club at present. We are turning the club into a community careline.”
The NHS began installing equipment at Plymouth on Thursday, while IT, telephone connections and signage have since been set up. There is scope for Argyle to hand their entire stadium to the NHS, with the majority of the club’s 70 full-time staff working remotely while a skeleton team tend to the stadium.
“We have left the door open for that to happen. It works in that those non-emergency cases and routine things can be done. If necessary we could use different parts of the stadium as well to do different activities. There are four separate stands and all of those can be used in one form or another. It is easy to think football is just a game but it’s so much more than that. It’s part of people’s lives, routines and it’s important from a social aspect. It is only right that it serves to be a community asset, particularly at this time.”
Plymouth have also raised almost £25,000 since launching a crowdfunding campaign with the aim of supporting local suppliers, pledging to donate one match ticket to NHS staff from Devon and Cornwall for every £100 raised.
“If we can be successful without kicking a ball to help save people’s lives, that to me is a big yes,” says Ryan Lowe, the Plymouth manager. “There are parents, nurses and doctors putting their bodies on the line and not going home to see their families, so it is great we can do something to give back.
“Football has taken a back step and rightly so because it’s not about football and we’re doing our bit to help that. Everyone is missing football and desperate to get back playing but ultimately the most important thing is to save lives and stop this cruel virus.”