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As blind as the referee

Bertie Vogts wasn't to blame for the decline of Scottish football and it's equally silly to think that schools can halt the rot, says John Cairney

National breast-beating over the poor record of the Scottish football team in recent years and last week's departure of Bertie Vogts as coach has once again given the pundits, both amateur and professional, the chance to sound forth with their opinions, prejudices, analyses and proposed solutions.

When a survey by a major broadsheet recently canvassed the opinions of 24 amateur and professional prominenti for their take on the crisis facing the Scottish game, some common themes emerged: limit the number of foreign imports, employ a more patriotic national coach, create more indoor playing areas, "blood" the younger players earlier and, of course, revolutionise the Scottish Football Association.

Though there were a number of references to youth football and young players, only two people specifically mentioned schools and they were both amateurs. Former sports minister Frank McAveety would change the school curriculum to "ensure more sport" and extend the school day to create extra time for playing sport. Another comedian (sorry, Frank), Andy Cameron, wanted to make it compulsory for every school to have a football team starting at primary 7.

The McAveety connection has a certain resonance with me when it comes to identifying and developing school-age football talent, a resonance that offers no solutions but perhaps makes the point that, even in the days when the Scottish national team was successful, there were still major flaws in the development system. It may even support my contention that schools football has never really played the development role in Scotland that many people claim it has.

In the mid-1970s when I was the football representative in a Glasgow secondary school, the former minister's older brother Philip played centre-half in a team that contained some of the most skilful young players I have ever seen. The team won most of the local competitions, two national trophies and three of them played for the Scottish schoolboys.

It was not just the fact that they won games, it was the manner of it.

Repeatedly, I was told by visiting teachers that they had never seen such footballing talent in the same team. Expectations that most of them would "make it" at senior level were, not unreasonably, high, but were never realised. As far as I can recall, Philip himself played a few senior games for St Mirren, another boy played for Stirling Albion and Brechin and one went to England. But it is safe to say that none of them reached the heights that many expected of them.

I mention this to make the point that there has always been a tremendous "wastage" of footballing talent. From my own experience as someone who played organised football from the age of 10 until my 20s and then spent more than 20 years taking school teams, I would not need more than two hands to count the number of players who "made it" at senior level from the thousands that I encountered both as team-mates and opponents.

This proved to me that the old argument that the wider the base of the pyramid the greater would be the talent produced at the apex has its flaws.

Talent without effective development is talent wasted and, to give the SFA its due, efforts to address this were made, such as the introduction of the seven-a-side game for the lower age groups.

So where does this leave schools football today in the grand scheme of things? Essentially where it always was, that is giving young people the chance to play a great game in an enjoyable, sporting and sociable context.

Talent will always be spotted.

Sometimes it is identified and harnessed too early, but that is another story. By the mid-teenage years promising school-age players should be taken under the wing of qualified coaches, a fact that has been acknowledged by the schools association which now permits the schoolboy international teams to be selected by SFA personnel.

Talent itself is usually not enough, as the experience of Philip McAveety's team shows. Luck, support, motivation and dogged perseverance are crucial, but not always forthcoming in these days when young people have so many other sporting and leisure options. As the national breast-beating continues, let's be realistic about the role of schools in addressing the problem.

In her comment as one of the amateur pundits consulted in the newspaper survey, Frank McAveety's successor as sports minister, Patricia Ferguson, confined her "solution" to talking about generalities, calling for more funding for the SFA to develop the game at grass-roots level.

Such blandness is perhaps understandable so early in her post, but with the Scottish Executive pouring around pound;20 million into football development something more effective must be expected if she is to succeed.

John Cairney is a former PE teacher.

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