Most football grounds are littered with advertising for brightly packaged fizzy drinks and the latest football video games. At one stadium in Scotland, however, the boards around the edge of the pitch also include regular adverts for Cocaine Anonymous – a self-help group for those suffering from cocaine addiction.
Welcome to Hamilton Academical or the “Accies”, as the club is known affectionately to its fans.
Small town, big ambitions
Located in a small town with a population of 50,000, Hamilton has grown to become one of the most exciting teams in Scottish football today. Surprise upsets over legendary clubs Celtic and Rangers in 2014 placed them well and truly on the footballing map. The club is strongly committed to its youth academy and enjoys the backing of Alan Maitland and Frank Macavoy, both big footballing names. But football is only half of the story.
For the Accies fighting addiction is as much a priority as winning matches. “Drugs are a horrendous problem in Scotland” says Collin McGowan, the club’s CEO. “It’s my belief that community football clubs should use their programmes to advertise out there to people with addiction.”
The club hosts meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous every Thursday evening. But its commitment to the community goes even further: the ground is open seven days a week, offering public access to synthetic football pitches and running football training programmes for all ages. It is also involved in the “Trainer for Freedom” initiative, which helps rehabilitate young people recently released from prison.
Leading by example
One of the driving forces behind the club’s mission to tackle addiction in the local community is the team’s chief executive, Colin McGowan. He first became involved with the club twelve years ago, when his risk management firm was helping the club recover from financial difficulties, eventually becoming a co-owner at the club.
Colin has himself been in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction for the past 31 years, during which time he has turned his life around. He still attends Twelve Steps meetings and has made it his life’s goal to help others struggling with addiction. He says it is ‘a moral obligation to spread the word that there’s recovery after drug addiction, that you can get better’.
Loyal fans, thriving community
The club’s mission enjoys the support of the staff and players at Hamilton. ‘When I share my experience regarding alcohol and drug abuse, they take the positive from all that,’ says Colin.
The local community also seems to be thrilled by the Accies’ mission to fight addiction. And while a small minority of fans say the club’s focus should be what happens on the field, the vast majority are firmly behind the anti-drug message.
If anything, this seems to be attracting more people to the matches. “I spoke to someone last week or two weeks ago and they said that they get great pride in being able to afford the season book [i.e. season ticket],” says Colin. ‘Before, they used their money for drink and drugs.’
A mission for the world
But the club’s ambitions go beyond promoting Twelve Steps programmes among the local community. The Accies want to head an international campaign to make the display of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous helpline information compulsory at football grounds all over the world, as well as encourage more teams to host fellowship meetings on their club premises.
Colin strongly believes in the power of football to win hearts and minds and change the world: “If there was a law or a recommendation that all football clubs must display the Twelve Steps recovery number, then more people would come for help.”
Hamilton Academical can hold its head high at being the first major football club to embrace such a highly visible drug prevention programme.
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