How do you cope when the focal point of your week is taken away from you?

This is the reality faced by many following the coronavirus outbreak. Pubs, restaurants and clubs are shut, gigs are postponed and sport has been cancelled due to the government’s social distancing guidelines.

For AFC Masters, a disability football club from Bolton, the ramifications of not being able to train, play and socialise together every week could have been severe.

“Everyone’s still messaging me on Saturday: ‘Is football on today?’” Club manager Iain Massingham explains. “They don’t quite get it, but they’re missing it. They miss it massively, as do I, as does everyone.

“But their understanding of the situation is a bit more complex than ours, and our understanding of the situation isn’t the best is it? It’s really hard.”

AFC Masters is so much more than just a football club.

What began in 2005 as three people having a kickabout on a Wednesday afternoon in Horwich has grown into a community pillar

The club now boasts more than 100 members, play competitive fixtures, and have their shirt on display at the National Football Museum.

“It’s not just a football club, it’s a big family,” says coach Josh Podmore. “You don’t just come and play football; you come and make friends for life.”

AFC Masters cater for all ages and abilities, running four sessions a week for children as young as five, right through to adulthood.

While the football is important, what is most vital is the friendships, support network and sense of belonging that the club provides.

The sessions are the staple of many players’ weeks. When the government’s lockdown measures were introduced in March, a substantial void was left in people’s lives.

“Sometimes it’s the only thing they do, and it still is a worry for me,” Massingham adds. “The only time that some of our players actually do anything is coming to football on a Monday or a Thursday or a Saturday.

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“That’s the only time they might leave the house in a couple of cases. For many of the players it’s the only time they socialise with each other and see friends, it’s so vital.

“I’m really proud of how well everyone’s dealing with the situation, especially some of the players who’ve got autism, because routine is so, so key to their welfare.

“And if you take that away, which we have done to everything, we know how difficult that is and how challenging that is, and if you’ve got autism that’s times 100. You’re not even coming close to how some of the players are dealing with this change.”

In order to compensate for the absence of football, AFC Masters have utilised social media to ensure the communal, interactive side of the club continues.

Every Saturday night, club members get dressed up and decorate their living rooms, and DJ Phil Grimshaw performs a live set on the AFC Masters Facebook page, enabling everyone to have a night out by staying in.

Bolton FM presenter Jim Bailey and housemate Casper Mason host a quiz, with AFC Masters alumnus Neil Stallard preparing the questions.

The current crop of players have also pitched in. Amy Nolan-Podmore has been teaching sign language and Dylan Cookson has been providing a joke of the day, while coach Josh Podmore has taught a different football skill each week.

“It’s such a sociable organisation that it’s important to keep that element of it alive, and although we can’t play football and physically be with each other, getting the opportunity to chat to each other on those groups is really important for everybody,” Massingham says.

“For our players who struggle to have an independent social life, and we provide that, they’re really missing out on us not being there.”

This year is AFC Masters’ 15-year anniversary. The club had celebrations planned for reaching such a milestone, but these have had to be put on ice.

Instead, their focus has turned to helping the most vulnerable members of the AFC Masters community.

Massingham, alongside welfare officers Claudette Wilson and Jen Ramsden, have also been phoning round to check up on players and their families during lockdown.

“Some of the players are having to shield themselves because of their health conditions,” Massingham explains. “So we’re just making sure they’ve got enough stuff in and are being looked after.

“That’s what families do.”