Even the most optimistic of Scottish football fans would struggle to find reasons to be positive at the moment: this season has witnessed referees go on strike, the national side appear no closer to qualifying for the finals of a major tournament, and the sickening threats and physical attacks suffered by Neil Lennon continue to dominate the headlines.
Every now and then though, a little glimmer of light manages to force it’s way through the dark clouds which envelop the Scottish game. Something that makes you realise that, thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom.
On this occasion, the setting is not Hampden, Celtic Park or Ibrox – instead it’s a high school on the outskirts of Glasgow on an unusually warm and sunny Sunday afternoon in April. I am here to support to my 6 year old nephew as he makes his debut for his local team. After some ‘encouragement’ from family members, he’s finally fallen in love with the game. There was some concern that he may never outgrow Fireman Sam, but the yellow hat and the fire engine have been replaced by a ball and a pair of boots. His new hero is Gary Hooper, with Parkhead and not Pontypandy, now the centre of his universe.
It’s my first real involvement with kids football since, well, when I was a kid. What I encounter here is very different from my own experiences with the game at this age. When I think back to my days at primary school back in the 1980’s (no it wasn’t yesterday) my memories are of games played on large gravel pitches, where a scuffed shot could lead to an opposing player receiving a mouthful of the playing surface. Then there was the legendary Mitre Mouldmaster – even now I wince as I recall the stinging pain inflicted by this monster of a ball after it caught me full in the face. The playing field at my school had quite a slope and if I close my eyes, I can see team-mates, parents and teachers hastily brushing away the large goalmouth puddle which often formed after a heavy downpour.
Given the timescales involved, pinpointing many of the games, teams and locations is not easy. However, there is one match that stands out – a league decider in my final year of primary school. We were a point behind the league leaders (two points for a win) and had to travel to their home turf (or should that be gravel?) for a final day showdown. My abiding memory is the massive pitch, with the average kid needing public transport to travel from one penalty box to the other. The torrential rain didn’t help.
What was the score? Well, let’s just say our opponents were far more comfortable with the wide open spaces.
Back in the present, my nephew’s competitive debut bears no resemblance to my own. There is not a piece of gravel in sight, rather an all-weather sports court where cones are used to mark out small pitches. The ice-hockey style (and size) goals are ideal for the 4-a-side games which are ongoing. Small-sided games are nothing new, but they are the ideal method for ensuring that kids receive as many touches of the ball as possible. Contrast that with days of old – the young lad playing wide left or right, standing freezing with his sleeves over his hands and hoping that the kick he had at the ball 20 minutes ago won’t be his last of the day.
Each match lasts only 10 minutes, meaning there is the opportunity to play against a number of different teams. Interestingly, there are no formal goalkeepers, instead each player takes a turn of being a sort of keeper/sweeper whose job is to stay back and cover the goal, but also must be prepared to pass the ball out from the back and join in the attack.
By far the biggest difference though, is in attitudes. The coaches are there to encourage and build confidence and they seem to understand that, with there being no evidence of raised voices or criticism of mistakes. Likewise, the behaviour of the parents is impeccable – there’s no sign of angry mums and dads brawling with each other or giving their children the ‘hairdryer’ treatment for a misplaced pass.
There are also some humorous moments. One little lad bursts through on goal like a mini Fernando Torres (the Liverpool version rather than the misfiring Chelsea model) and confidently sidefoots the ball towards the bottom corner, but unfortunately, the ball strikes a post and rolls away. It’s all too much for the distraught youngster as he walks away from goal with his hands over his face. What he doesn’t realise however, is that one of his teammates has collected the ball just to the right of goal, and is waiting for El Nino to turn around and receive a pass for a tap-in. The boy’s coach and parents can only chuckle as he continues to walk away from goal, completely oblivious, and the chance is gone.
Another kid is facing the opposition goal waiting for the ball to come back into play, when he is distracted by something on the ground – he stops, bends down to pick up what turns out to be a stone, and studies it while the game carries on around him.
Overall, the day is a very enjoyable experience. Nobody records the score, and there are no league titles or cups to be won. Instead it’s just groups of kids enjoying football.
The chances are, few of these kids will go on and become professionals, but that really doesn’t matter. It’s all about kids being given a proper introduction to the game – by having the opportunity to play football in an environment which suits their abilities, allows them to be genuinely involved and enables anyone with a natural talent to flourish.
With this scene being replicated across the country, there is at least some hope for the future of the Scottish game… even if the present doesn’t provide much cheer.