John McKendrick: Determination not deprivation key to success
THOUGH successful footballers of today found inspiration in their often impoverished upbringing, poverty itself was not the key, writes John McKendrick
It IS not unusual to delve into the past to explain your present. It is one of the basic tenets of psychoanalysis and one of the cornerstones of those who advocate the mantra of “early intervention” – invest effectively in children to prevent higher levels of public spend on tomorrow’s adults.
And, even when the explanation does not really rest with past times, history often features, writ large, in making sense of the present. My mother-in-law is not averse to drawing parallels between her daughter and my three-year-old daughter Morven’s finely tuned skills in zoning out when asked to do what is not to her liking.
Maybe this search for the present in the past is the real reason that I have spent the last few months poring through childhood recollections in almost 100 Scottish footballers’ autobiographies. I have been viewing the Scotland of yesteryear through the memories of some of our most revered talents (the likes of Alex Ferguson, Dave Mackay, Kenny Dalglish and Jimmy Johnstone) and some of our cherished mavericks (such as Frank McAvennie, Peter Marinello, Chic Charnley and Andy McLaren).
My own interest in all things sport was fuelled in a 1970/80s childhood that was largely spent on the streets, parks and other sport-places that were adapted from the built environment of Pennyburn, a “New Town” estate in Kilwinning, North Ayrshire.
1st Kilwinning Boys Brigade introduced me to the exotic sports of hill-running and orienteering. The local council played its part – its Cunninghame Card provided many hours of free entertainment on the tennis courts and putting greens of nearby McGavin Park. My football-mad father was the catalyst for a life-long love of our national game.
These days, I spend my working life analysing the problem of child poverty in Scotland and pondering over the neighbourhood qualities that enrich children’s lives.
Next week, I am speaking about “Celebrating Deprivation? Paradoxical Poverty in Recollections of Growing Up in Scotland by Professional Football Players” at the World Congress of the Sociology of Sport, which is being hosted by Glasgow Caledonian University.
My main observation is that, in sharp contrast to how expert social commentators and policy makers regard “multiply deprived” neighbourhoods today, successful footballers tend to attribute their success, at least in part, to the ample opportunities these areas afforded to play football and acquire the personal qualities that would stand them in good stead in later life. These were places that not only did not hamper future success; they were places that made future success much more likely.
However, it is not the vibrancy of neighbourhood life that is celebrated. Rather, time and time again, the belief that adversity produces talent is brought to the fore. Put simply, football provided a “way out” or at least a welcome distraction from the dearth of opportunities available.
As Danny McGrain reflects on Drumchapel, “While it was without doubt a planners’ aberration, with no amenities like cinemas, play areas or clubs to act as diversions, Drumchapel was, for the very young like myself, a paradise, nevertheless. It was full of endless, green fields where you made your own entertainment by kicking a ball around from morning until night in games that had ‘teams’ of twenty or more a side.”
So, does the future for Scottish football, or the silver bullet to solve the “crisis” of young people’s sedentary lifestyles, rest with a return to more extreme poverty for the people? Of course not.
Poverty, the restrictive impact on life that results from having insufficient income, is a scourge on Scotland. It always has been. In this respect, my heroes have got it wrong – poverty was not the root cause for the conveyor belt of sporting talent that was the mining villages and housing schemes of yesterday’s Scotland.
Indeed, there is much that is being done across Scotland today that tries to compensate for the difficulties many young people face in accessing sport and living an active lifestyle. My own university’s Tale of Two Sporting Cities brought together children from Castlemilk and Tower Hamlets in London, providing them with two weeks of introduction to Olympic and Commonwealth Sports; the Tartan Army Children’s Charity operates a scheme to take disadvantaged children to their first Scotland match; Scottish Sports Futures uses basketball as an “engagement tool”; and the Drumchapel Table Tennis Club has for over twenty years showcased what can be achieved when the opportunities are available.
But mere provision of opportunity is no more likely to be successful than impoverishing the population. Delve deeper into the autobiographies of Scotland’s footballers and what becomes apparent in their childhood years are a steely determination, a voracious appetite that stems from within and a boundless capacity to adapt the local environment to meet their needs. And, this is the point.
We need to trust our children to stake more of a claim on our neighbourhoods. Regional sports facilities and all-weather surfaces are helpful, but I can’t help but believe that more would be achieved if we focused less on bricks and mortar and more on creating environments in which children played more of an active role.
Let’s make a start by tearing down the signs declaring “No ball games here”.
• John H. McKendrick is an SPL/SFL football referee, author of Poverty in Scotland 2011 (Child Poverty Action Group), a member of the Board of Directors of Play Scotland, and Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences at Glasgow Caledonian University.
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