As a player, Gordon Strachan was the skilful midfield dynamo who combined creativity with the stereotypical feistiness of a Scottish redhead. He was the kind of player who could make a difference.
As a manager who was driven and competitive, he sought to do the same, successfully winning league titles and cups.
Trying to make a difference is part of his DNA.
Which is why, as Scotland boss, he spent the morning of an important World Cup qualifier against England fielding calls about washing machines.
The Strachan Football Foundation was established in 2011, combining football with education in the aim of installing high personal standards in teenagers and helping them achieve in life, on and off the pitch.
In the eight years since, the foundation has helped 300 kids who started off with few academic qualifications move into full-time employment. Another 25 have earned scholarships to US universities, and the door has been opened for half a dozen to embark on a professional football career.
The latter stat is one many will focus on. Strachan takes greater pride in the couple that precede it. But he wants to do even more. Which is why the patron of the Spartans Community Football Academy is launching a similar programme in Scotland this year, with the capital-based club and Edinburgh College.
Trials will be held on 25 and 26 April, with the successful applicants starting the course in August.
Aimed at 16-19-year-olds with a passion for football, the Strachan Football Personal Development course will use football as a vehicle to drive academic learning.
Students will train as professional footballers, play football in the Scottish Student Sport leagues and cup competitions, experience coaching workshops delivered by nationally recognised football coaches, including sessions with Strachan himself, but in the first year, students will also work towards a National Certificate in Sport and Fitness before being offered the support and the opportunity to go on to higher levels of study, including university degree courses in future years.
Aimed at developing football skills, improving personal fitness and increasing employment prospects, the key target is personal growth.
“We bring in guest coaches, the likes of Lee Carsley, Steven Pressley, Gary Caldwell, Aidy Boothroyd and our guys go along to help when coaches are doing their badges or when referees need to experiment when they are learning how to use VAR,” explains Strachan. “But I don’t count success in just producing footballers. Everyone on the course would love to be involved in football. That’s understandable because it is a wonderful game but there are many ways to do that because not everyone can play at the highest level.”
Guys like Luke Leahy who, having had trials with the likes of Birmingham City, Bradford City and Peterborough United, finally found his route into the professional game via the Strachan Football Foundation and has since played more than 100 games for Falkirk and is working his way towards another century with English League One side, Walsall.
“We see 16-year-olds coming in who are unsure about where they were going in life,” adds Strachan. “They maybe don’t have lots of qualifications but they have an idea they would like to be in football and we try to help them achieve that, as a player, or maybe coaching, and we have one with us just now, who came as a player but has gone on to become an A licence coach.
“We’ve had other guys who are working in sport science, two are first-team fitness coaches. Another is involved in analysis and this kid is an example of what we are about.
“This kid came to us for trials and he loved football but he wasn’t good enough to be a professional footballer but we liked him, liked his attitude. We knew he probably wouldn’t be a footballer, he wasn’t as fit as he could be but we got him to come along and work in analysis and now he is fully qualified, and in two years of working with us, he has changed his body shape as well. He is fitter and he feels better in himself and he is more confident and believes he belongs in that environment now. So that is another success.”
At a time when football is attracting negative headlines, thanks to racist chants, sectarian abuse, pitch invasions, and misbehaviour in the stands, and stars are seen as pampered primadonnas, their image sullied further by one or two whose actions have led to sanctions or even jail time, the former Scotland manager is fighting to remind people that inherently the sport is there for good.
“As society becomes more shut off thanks to technology and social media, the team sport teaches interpersonal skills, team work, leadership, responsibility, self confidence, problem solving, determination… the list goes on and on. Football is character building, teaches discipline and all the skills translate into any workplace so it doesn’t matter what pathway they chose, this course benefits them all.
“Yes, the people we take on – and we have had a girl who has gone on to get a scholarship in the US – have to have a certain level of football ability, and we do hold trials to make sure of that. But it is about much more than that. Education is a big part of it and even as players, that is a benefit. Players have to be able to take in information and follow instructions – if not, they won’t develop. I say that if I have to tell a player four times to do the same thing and it hasn’t sunk it, then I know I’m wasting my time.
“Education is understanding small things and I look at John McGinn, and forget what he can do as a footballer, I’m talking about him as a person. If we could make everyone like John McGinn, produce similar people coming through our foundation, then we will have cracked it. But there have been successes. Even if it is just getting a kid who was glued to his mobile phone to start making eye contact and engage with others again, it is all a success and part of the journey. We really are proud of what we have achieved and believe it can be even better up here.
“Look, we do need to produce better players and that is something we have to look at but that isn’t what this course is all about. That is not what our foundation is all about, there are others who can get on with that. This is about more than that.”
Which takes us back to the Scotland v England clash and the washing machines.
“I was in between jobs, again, when my son wanted to set up this foundation and that’s how I got involved, but I have been sucked in. When I am out of work, I spend a lot of time on the foundation and that makes it difficult sometimes, when I am managing.
“I remember it one time when I was Scotland manager.
“I had decided that to save some money we needed to buy some washing machines [for the SFF, which is based in Rugby] so I bought them myself. I was preparing for the Scotland v England game [in June 2017] when we drew 2-2 and that morning I was up at 7:30am trying to finally decide on my team, wondering if I should play Leigh Griffiths or not – thank Christ I picked him – then I got a call from someone saying ‘Mr Strachan, we are here.’ I said: ‘What do you mean you are here’. ‘We are here with the washing machines’. ‘But I’m not there, I’m in Scotland’. ‘So who is going to open the gates then?’ ‘Not me, do me a favour, ask someone else’. So, I go back to thinking about the team but then the phone goes again. ‘There’s still nobody here’. I said: ‘Lads, I’m trying to pick a team here’. ‘What team?’ ‘The Scotland team for the game against England’ ‘Oh, you mean fantasy football?’ ’No the real one and if you don’t leave me alone to pick the right team I will get the sack. Then I will be able to come back down and open the gates for you!’
“So it is difficult when it overlaps with a job but we all do it because we love the successes we have had and the fact we can make a difference.”
n For further details about applying please contact SCFA at: email@example.com or Neil MacKenzie from Edinburgh College at Neil.MacKenzie@edinburghcollege.ac.uk