SCOTTISH football is shunning the housing schemes which were once considered fertile ground when it came to producing some of the nation’s greatest legends.
Former international Andy McLaren, who was capped once at the top level, says that kids in the former football heartlands are being priced out the game and describes it as a “national outrage”.
“That might sound a bit strong but this is our national sport and it needs all the help it can get,” he said. “Gordon Strachan is doing a good job with the national team now but we could be better.”
Since retiring from the game, the former Dundee United and Kilmarnock player has set up a company, A&M Training, which uses football to increase the self-esteem to troubled youngsters in some of the central belt’s poorest areas.
“We’re working with 1,200 young people every week, from some of the poorest areas of Glasgow, giving them free football. They play organised games at Petershill, five minutes away from where James McFadden and Kenny Dalglish came from and, for me, we need to get back into these schemes and make football affordable for these kids and by affordable I mean for nothing. We’ve got boys from 12 up to 20 and they shouldn’t be priced out of football.”
McLaren says the project has already helped them uncover hidden football gems but they have also helped guide youngsters towards a healthier lifestyle and given them the support and self-belief needed to try to make the best of their lives and keep them out of trouble.
“Lee McClelland, who signed for Alloa last year, came to us having never even played boys’ club football. He ended up playing in their first team within the space of a couple of months.
“That’s the dream, although it’s not even that. The dream is to make young people better people and give them a better opportunity in life. Listen, I would love to see a boy playing SPL and above but, for me, it’s about helping get these boys to go and make a contribution to society and it’s about giving them positive role models. Guys like Gary McSwegan, Alan Sneddon and Peter McDonald – the kids can go on YouTube and Facebook and see what these boys have done – Sweggy scoring in the Champions League – and it gives them a boost to think that guys of that standing are giving up their time for them. There is talent out there, we’ve just got to dig deeper and reach out to these kids.”
Funding remains an issue, with McLaren restricted in how far he can extend the current network. It frustrates him but does not dampen his passion. “I was one of them. I keeping saying that to them, ‘I was just a boy like you’ but I was lucky to be good enough to play football. There wasn’t much else to do in Castlemilk when I was growing up. It was football or gang fighting and I was a s****bag so it was sport for me! Now kids don’t even get enough fitba.
“Football, as I see it, has become middle class. I’d have been priced out of the game had I been a boy now. These days it’s a tenner a week kids are asked for. Some say ‘only’ a tenner a week. Listen, we have parents around here visiting food banks because they can’t afford to feed their kids. And yet football is meant to be our national sport. C’mon, price shouldn’t be a barrier to kids playing football.
“I know why boys’ clubs do it, it’s expensive to hire out pitches and get kit. But there’s got to be something done about it. Even if these kids aren’t going to become professionals they’re going to be fans of the future, they’re the lifeblood of the game. Schemes in the past were a breeding ground for talent but we’ve lost that. People go on about obesity and yet football is the best thing in the world to combat that.
“It’s also a game that brings down social barriers. We have about 50 different nationalities that turn up on a Friday. Glasgow has become a real multi-cultural society. But we don’t have any hassle with kids saying, ‘You come from there and I come from here’, they just want to play fitba.” Claiming they have not even scratched the surface, despite having 25 sites around Glasgow, McLaren says he is desperate to spread the word and the opportunity. The SFA are recognising the worth in the work being done and have invited some of the lads to get involved at this weekend’s European Championship qualifier against Georgia.
“We had a meeting with the SFA last week and they’ve asked us to bring along 16 of our boys who play on a Friday night to be ball boys at the match. One of the lads is actually from Georgia, so we’re going to get him along.”
Raising awareness and funds remains a tough task though, which baffles McLaren. “I honestly believe what we do saves money. We get hundreds of boys off the street on a Friday night. Those boys, ordinarily, would be out getting drunk. They tell us that. But we’re giving them something to do and they’re responding to it.
“It takes money to lock people up in jail or treat them for obesity. I think the last figure was something like £450million the NHS is spending on obesity but we have kids running about on a Friday night and a Tuesday night and that’s five hours’ exercise a week, the national average set by the Government. So it might cost money in the short term but in the long term it’s a no-brainer for me, it’s saving money.”