Grassroots Football in Scotland: St Mirren - part 1

Written by Andrew Southwick.

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Part one of a detailed look at St Mirren Youth FC.

By Sean Graham

The importance of Grassroots football cannot be highlighted enough in the modern game. Magazines like Non League football magazine give the game in this country a platform to let others see that there is life outside of the Premiership etc and the SPL and all divisions in Scotland.

I have always been interested in football at all levels and when a friend of mine invited me to come along to a training session to speak with a few of the coaches at the club and help me understand just how much hard work goes into running a club or coaching at a club.

Going along to St.Mirren Youth FC, you began to see where it all begins for most young players at boys’ club level, where young boys aim to impress hoping to catch the eye of pro youth scouts.

This is where they learn their trade at a young age and this is where a club plays an important part in a young players development for the future but the play himself must have the correct attitude in the first place and if they do apply themselves in the correct manner, this can go along way in helping them achieve their long term goals.

I spoke to Frank Sweeney at St Mirren Youth Football Club and two coaches in particular aiming on concentrating on finding and developing young talent. We hear the views from Iain MacMillan and Will Devlin, two coaches brought into St Mirren this season to head up their new under 15 team. Iain and Will outline their aims for their team, what they hope to achieve in terms of player development, what they hope to bring to the overall setup  and their views in general on the youth scene in Scotland.

Frank had served his time with a couple of other clubs before ending up where he is today at St.Mirren Youth FC and it was while he was in charge of a team called Williamsburgh United that he was noticed and offered the chance to come to the then St.Mirren FCBC. Which effectively meant - Football Club Boy's Club - as when it was created by Tony Fitzpatrick, former player and manager of the professional club of the same name in 1998, as a forerunner to the Scottish professional youth set-up.

There was something in the way that Frank handled the team and how he showed himself on the touchline that really shone through and it would be for the good of his new club. Frank had a vision but before his vision even took place his club had a change of name from St.Mirren FCBC to St.Mirren YFC.

Frank Sweeney: "We changed the name at the beginning of season 2009-2010 and there were probably two or three reasons for that but probably the biggest reason for that was St.Mirren FC themselves.

"We used to be their official boys club, hence the FCBC but with the advent of pro-youth , this means that you can no longer be officially involved with a Scottish professional club. A number of years ago, before the creation of the pro-youth system, the professional clubs had their own  boys or youth teams. When the pro-youth set-up came in, they decided there was no need for the 'football club's boys club', so we decided to make a clean break with our own badge and called ourselves St.Mirren Youth Football Club because as you see from the girls outside we are not just a boys club-it has been my aim to have girls football teams also at this club. There are girls dotted throughout this club but what we don’t have is a girl’s team from the age of 12 and up but we are hopeful that at the end of the season that can change.

“When I joined the club, within a year or two I was the secretary of the whole club and one of the things that was always brought up at meetings was that we have to get the kids in earlier and this club are doing that.

“I had a vision that the club should be growing and bringing kids in younger because we used to start at Under 13’s but we had to start it from scratch as it is getting harder and harder as some of the kids are already with a team when they are younger, so about seven years ago when I was still running my Under 21’s along with help from Alistair Anderson as no one else wanted to do it.

“I started an Under 11’s team and Under 10’s which would go Under 12’s and Under 11’s but after a couple of years we decided that this was not working and we would start an extra one and in seven years I have got them down to Mini Kickers and that is between the ages of 5-7 year olds-it just means that we have our Soccer 4’s or our Mini Kickers and it leads to seven a side then eleven a side games, so there is a pathway for every player to go all the way through the club without having to leave it for any reason other than to try somewhere else but there is no reason to go anywhere else as everything is already here for them.

“We make the kids feel wanted and you see them around the club with their little kits on with smiles on their little faces but it is not just the kids who are happy with the club, the parents know their children are at a well run club which has the SFA Quality Mark.”

Many folk will be wondering what that is?

“Well it is an accreditation that you get from the SFA and in our club we have a guy called Stephen Mann, our Chairman, Coach Development Co-ordinator, Girls Co-ordinator and Head Coach of the Under 12s. He has been a great source in helping us get the Quality Mark, recruiting coaches and preparing them fit for purpose as well as taking on some fund raising for the club - basically giving us a more professional and quality assured backbone whilst not any association with a professional club.

“It really is what it says, it’s a mark of quality about your club, how much coach education they have done, are they fully disclosed-all ours are and we do encourage them to do the SFA Pathway right through to Early Touches development and levels 1,2,3,4,they can go as far as they want.

“We only had so many teams at the club maybe seven or eight teams when I first came and now we cover 13 age ranges from 5, 6 and 7 year olds up to Under 21s, within 18 playing squads and it has been a long time coming! From this Spring we'll have an all girl's team competing for the very first time. this is an Under 13s squad they have started really well winning their first three matches of the season, which runs March to November.

“It has been a lot of work but seeing the kids come on and seeing the kids progress all the way through from maybe coming through from when I have started the club, hand them on to other coaches and then you see them maybe three or four games later and they are bigger and stronger players and maybe they are playing for the region or someone like that, it does give you a certain amount of satisfaction.

“On Grassroots football well I think they are starting to get it right, it has been a long hard slog, as you know in Scottish football there is a lot of different factions, the SPL, the SFA, the SYFA, the Juniors, the Amateurs, the Schools - you name it, the point is we have too many and they all work to different agendas.

“Over the years there have been a lot of changes, a lot of associations have joined together or work in partnership and it has become more organised.

“Towards a national structure and just recently the SFA have been trying to get a Player Pathway sorted between certain age groups, you play Soccer 4's then it leads into Soccer 7's and then it leads into a fully fledged eleven a side game with a transition year and it looks as if for the very first time, Hearts next year this is going to happen!

“I have been to meetings with Jim Fleeting and David Little, so has Stephen Mann and he heard David Little explain (the SYFA) are going to be adopting the SFA and the SYFA are going to be on the same page, so yes we are getting there but there is still a bit to go.

“Since I started running my team, I started at under 9's then I went all the way up to under 21's with them,15 or 16 seasons and from that time there has been a lot of changes!

“We started at 9 year old playing 11 a side football, a few years later we introduced 7 a side football and now you have soccer 4's it is getting better but it is taking a long time.

“The basic thing that we are crying out for is decent training facilities, indoor and outdoor, there are not enough astrograss parks with lights, and we need more facilities like Toryglen.

“I have had to split my mini kickers in two-my 2003-04 will be on one night and my 2002's will be another night just because there are so many of them and all I have  got is two wee halls, it is not even a games hall, it is two wee halls.

“I don't know what the answer is? I know that there are only so many facilities to go around and to get a slot in a games hall is like cutting hen's teeth - unless you can access decent indoor facilities for very young footballers, it is very difficult.

Coming tomorrow: part two.

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