Aidan Smith: Not taking the rap for football’s cock up

Hibs manager Alan Stubbs and player Sam Stanton promoted the partnership between the Championship club and the youth teams at Spartans. Picture: Lesley Martin

Hibs manager Alan Stubbs and player Sam Stanton promoted the partnership between the Championship club and the youth teams at Spartans. Picture: Lesley Martin

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LIKE any boy whose tenth birthday happily – no, deliriously – coincided with a Scottish club winning the European Cup and the national team declaring themselves world champions.

I suddenly wanted to be a footballer. As luck would have it, the primary school team was restarting after many years of disbandment. And – a real stroke of good fortune, this – the strips given us were hand-me-down posh-academy rugby ones. A few weeks before, my well-meaning mother had gone to an Edinburgh emporium called School Exchange and bought me a shirt with the same hoops-and-collar combo and I’d already suffered massive ridicule.

First game: 0-10. Second game: 0-6. Third game: 0-2. “You’re improving by four goals every week,” said the headmaster, Mr Scobie, when he summoned us to his room. “So, Smith, it’s the big one next: what’s going to be the score?” The big one was the Inspectors’ Cup, a name suggestive of head lice spot-checks, but this couldn’t dull our excitement. “Hey Dad,” I said when I got home that night, “will you come and watch?”

We were all to ask our parents along but on the morning of the game my father was the only one on the touchline. I felt for my pals, straining to impress a man they didn’t know. Meanwhile I was trying to impress Chris Shevlane, the Hibernian full-back. He was watching the game on the adjacent pitch but was bound to turn round. Then he could return to Hibs with a “dossier” on me – and, yes, this being the 1960s, a big spy era, we did use such words.

Changed days. That was the only time I can remember a parental presence at my football and now I have to get there early for my son’s training sessions – not yet matches – to grab a spot under the dug-out shelter which offers at least some protection from Storm Abigail.

Every Saturday morning it’s the same story. Mums and dads in rambler footwear and cradling coffee flasks line up along the perimeter. It’s the same story on Sunday mornings and Monday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. There’s another session my son could attend on Friday afternoons but I can’t get off work to take him. And anyway, six days of organised football, all those bibbed-up drills, seems excessive. Maybe Lord Shaftesbury, who successfully stopped children having to sweep chimneys, would want to investigate. Or at least try and persuade my laddie to keep up with other sports, his homework and contact with his mother beyond those grunts at the tea-table during refuelling.

Two storms hit Scotland last week: Abigail and Gord. Gordon Strachan admitted he was obsessed with saving our game. This sparked a huge debate and a flurry of “special reports” on the back pages which increased in intensity. A cynic would remark that it was a week without Celtic and Rangers having any games so the papers needed to fill up with something, but you won’t find any of that sneering here. Players, coaches and guru-types discussed why the great Scottish conveyor-belt of talent had malfunctioned. And the headline for the thoughts of Eddie May, academy boss at Hibs, ran: “There are too many kids, too many agents and too many pushy parents…”

Touchline Dad, I thought, was a cliché and already an outmoded one. He’d appeared on the scene years after Stage Mum had taken all of the flak for parents seeking to live out a happier resolution to their dashed dreams via their offspring. Then, not wanting the same ridicule, and being keen to consolidate male superiority, he’d taken heed of warnings from on high in football about over-excitable behaviour at youth games and self-policed. Well, it seems he’s still out there.

My son is too young for seven-a-side games against other clubs so I’m relying on the testimonies of friends with older boys. They’ve been at matches where fathers – and mothers – have bawled across the width of the pitch at each 
other. During one game the boys suddenly stopped playing and told their parents to stop arguing because they were embarrassing them.

Perhaps this kind of overbearing behaviour is mostly found at the stage before academy because at that level there are clubs which demand that parents sign a commitment to stay silent while watching their children. Certainly May’s gripe is not about the pressure parents put on kids so much as the coaches. “They will ask questions and put demands on coaches,” he said. “I’d love to know if they do the same thing with the English or maths teacher.” Well, 
yes we do. Football is the greatest game in the world but our boys might not make the grade or even want it for a career. Best they stick in at school, keep their options open.

No prizes for guessing one of the parents’ most-asked questions. “If their son is not playing because there is somebody better than them, that is harsh but it is life,” said May. He’s right. It’s life, it’s football – a much tougher sport than some parents may have realised, back when they registered for the tots’ intake. My son’s club is quite middle-class and when his age-group left their 3G behind to play in their first football festival – on grass – they were roughed up a fair bit. Welcome to West Lothian – and welcome to the real world.

May’s point about there being “too many kids” is a valid one. Too many are brought into the system, they get too excited about the football dream – and too disappointed when it fizzles out. Eddie came to our club and launched a partnership with Hibs which I can confirm made one boy ecstatic and got his father – trying hard to keep a lid on things – definitely intrigued. Now, after just a few months, the sessions are being wound down.

Parents react like this because we love football and want our kids to get the best out of it, even if it’s just the best fun. This generation of mums and dads is more involved in their children’s lives than previous ones, and more protective as well. Too much mollycoddling? You bet there is, but if today’s young Scottish prospect is softer, not made of barbed wire like Billy Bremner was, less able to think for himself and less desperate to make it, then we’re not taking the rap for all of that. Football’s cocked up majorly and football’s got to sort it. We’ll carry on providing the taxi service and the sticking plasters.

That Inspectors’ Cup-tie? Oh, you know, St Joseph’s beat us 15-1, Peter Marinello’s nephew scoring eight.

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