Richard Bath: The national tendency towards unhealthiness is not the whole story of football woe
THE Dutch are a sparky nation, prone to speaking their minds without giving a damn for the consequences. And so it was with SFA performance director Mark Wotte who, after the recent defeat by Belgium blamed Scotland’s plummeting status in international football on our taste for tonic wine and junk food.
Scotland is, he says, being undermined by the Buckfast generation and all that sacking one failing manager after another will achieve will be to make Scotland like England, where the job of national manager is now a poisoned chalice.
The national tendency towards unhealthiness is certainly not the whole story when it comes to football. Celtic’s Charlie Mulgrew, for instance, pointed to the fact that an almost obsessive winning culture from an early age often obscures the need for boring and repetitive drills which improve technique and are the foundations upon which the success of, for example, Spain and Barcelona, has been built.
At the elite junior level, Wotte is himself making a huge difference as he tries to implement the same fundamental changes in culture and approach which he witnessed first hand in Marc van Geersom’s approach in Belgium in the early 1990s, and which took ten years to bear fruit. The inaugural football festival of the SFA’s seven performance schools, for instance, in which 100 talented young footballers have been given tailored development programmes, is already providing some green shoots for the future.
But, on a more fundamental level, Wotte is basically right. His job is to bring change at football’s top level by nurturing the grass roots but what he has discovered at Scotland’s sporting ground zero is deeply worrying. The evidence is fairly incontrovertible, and there is certainly no doubt that, thanks to our diet and lack of activity, we’re becoming fatter more quickly than at any stage in our history. Fewer than 40 per cent of Scottish adults exercise enough to stay fit, while the number now categorised as overweight increased from 52 per cent to 63 per cent between 1995-2010, with 28 per cent of Scottish adults categorised as obese. The situation is particularly dire among women, with the average waistline having expanded by two-and-a-half inches in the past ten years.
The future consequences for our health service, if nothing else, hardly bear thinking about.
When it comes to our kids, there are many bright spots where sports, councils or schools are doing great things, with the Scottish Government’s commitment that, by 2014, every Scottish child will have two hours a week of school sport a notable step in the right direction, yet the overall picture at youth level remains as worrying as the adult population’s waistline. So dominant are television and computer games that experts at Stirling University’s School of Sport have felt the need to devise a programme which will teach children aged 3-5 how to move (throw, run, jump etc) properly because these are now skills that are not routinely learnt at home. A pilot project is already under way at Beaconhurst School near Stirling and will be rolled out to primary schools and nurseries in North Lanarkshire.
Yet so much more needs to be done, and much of it is easily achieved (if we banned kids from leaving school premises at lunchtime, for instance, not only could we influence what they eat but they’d probably run around and play football, as my generation did). When I last wrote about competitive sport in schools I received a huge postbag which included endless concrete examples of instances where committed groups of volunteers had been stymied by local government. Some of the reason for that was a lack of resources, with the Government’s freeze on council tax hitting home in local government provision, but there was also sheer bloody mindedness. One group of community activists in Beith were stonewalled for three years by North Ayrshire Council despite raising over £150,000 to renovate derelict sports facilities. The Linwood Development Trust, with its hundreds of members, had a community plan in place, a consultation exercise which spoke to over 3,000 people, only to be told by the council officer in charge of property that their plans were “simply aspirations”.
As one disillusioned community activist who had spent years trying to develop a sports club in his town wrote to me: “For all the [council’s] chat about community control and the like, we are exhausted with the process, with writing business plans no one reads, working full-time, attending endless meetings, with community engagement that goes nowhere. We were even expected to pay for the council project manager to manage the works on the facility – so the community pay the council to do the work on a community facility which they are actually paid to do through our taxes.”
There’s so much more, too, that it’s difficult to know where to start, but a personal experience recently brought home to me the need for a change in culture. I also work for a magazine which has 20 staff. We recently moved into an office next to a gym and were offered membership through a scheme where the employer could pay and claim the salary back. This used to be tax deductible, yet recent changes mean that not only is this no longer the case, but that the salary sacrifice scheme through which this would be paid for is now subject to VAT. This has effectively doubled the cost of a membership of a council gym. The result? Just two of the ten people who had initially expressed an interest will now be using the gym.
These are all small pieces of the jigsaw but, put together, they make a pretty worrying picture. At a time when sporting groups the length and breadth of the country are screaming that the legacy of 2012 is in the process of being wasted, it’s time to take a step back and take a fundamental look at where we stand so that we do not find ourselves in the same position when we come to examine the legacy of 2014. As Wotte rightly said, the time to act is now.
Ferguson unfair with criticism of Roberts’ stance
Sir Alex Ferguson’s default mode is to be entertainingly pugnacious, but in his comments on footballer Jason Roberts’ decision not to support English football’s anti-racism Kick It Out campaign by refusing to wear its T-shirt, he is dead wrong. Of course Ferguson is right to argue football must present a united front, even in a year when the FA has been embarrassingly ineffective in both the Suarez and Terry cases, but to suggest that Roberts’ motives may be linked to his work as a football pundit is beyond the pale. “All the players are wearing it, I have only heard that Jason Roberts is different,” said Fergie. “But he is very different: he plays a game and is in the studio 20 minutes after it.” Roberts, pictured, may be misguided, but his stance comes out of a sense of frustration he says is shared by many other black players. Ferguson might do well to reflect on that rather than shooting the messenger.
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Monday 20 May 2013
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