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Celtic boys get shot at their goal

Maths and English are as important as dribbling and passing for talented footballing youngsters

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Maths and English are as important as dribbling and passing for talented footballing youngsters

While classmates are still pouring out their Coco Pops, 14 pupils at St Ninian's High arrive at school to work through high-energy football drills. It is 7.45am, the start of an 11-hour day, and potentially the beginning of several careers in professional football.

The East Dunbartonshire school has joined forces with Celtic Football Club for the first programme of its type in Scotland. Talented youngsters in the club's youth programme arrive at St Ninian's from all over the country - and beyond - to take their training to a new level.

The boys are progressing more quickly now that they are closer to Celtic's Lennoxtown training centre, five miles away, but a close working relationship with a trusted school is also designed to ensure they concentrate on maths and English as much as dribbling and passing.

The club believes a well-educated young man not only has options if his football career fails, but that he will be more rounded and able to cope with the demands of professional sport. This was a philosophy inspired by the late John Cushley, a former Celtic player and education officer, as well as depute head at St Ambrose High in Coatbridge.

The programme came about after Celtic's head of youth, Chris McCart, studied similar programmes at leading European clubs, such as Barcelona, Villarreal, AC Milan and Benfica. It is closely modelled on what he saw at one of the Netherlands' best teams, PSV Eindhoven.

One of the 14 mostly S3-4 boys was at the school, in Kirkintilloch, but the others, from further afield - Ayrshire, Dundee, Dumfries and Ireland, stay with families in digs.

Coming together at St Ninian's allows them to train nine times a week instead of four. On three mornings, they practise at the school from 7.45- 9.15am; on the other two until 8.30am. They also train four times a week after school at Lennoxtown.

The school has to rejig timetables to make sure the boys can keep up with missed classes, but headteacher Paul McLaughlin - Scotland's 2009 head of the year - was willing to make this compromise after Celtic underlined that education was central to the programme.

"They accept they have to study, to do well at school and education is at the forefront," Mr McCart said.

The club allows the boys time for homework before evening training. They used to do homework in the car on the way home, but parents had told Mr McLaughlin their lives had become "a lot more normal" since starting after the summer.

He added that the boys' commitment to training was matched by their hard work in class, which is rubbing off on their peers. Football's demands dictate that they sit at least one Standard grade or Intermediate fewer than other pupils.

The boys' Celtic connection has been downplayed, and they have integrated well: "We never introduced them as the Celtic boys - we said these were new pupils. The others know them much better through their involvement in classes."

The link with Celtic has provided St Ninian's with access to the club's sports scientists and new work experience opportunities. It also led legendary former Celtic captain Billy McNeill to present awards to S1- 2s.

The programme has similarities with the Scottish Football Association's Schools of Football, which operates in six schools across Scotland, but only takes in talented young footballers from relatively nearby.

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