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Cup final disappointment, but Staggies win in the community

"Behaviour has never been better," says Dingwall Academy headteacher Graham MacKenzie.

He was speaking to The TESS three days before Ross County's loss in the Scottish Cup final, a time of excitement that surpassed anything else he had seen in a 37-year teaching career: he did not know anyone who was not going to the game.

The team was due to make a short visit to the school the day before the match - hence pupils' immaculate behaviour. No one wanted to be kept in class while their pals waved the Staggies off to Hampden.

But the bond with the team is no flash in the pan. The club, after leaving the Highland League in 1994 to join Scottish football's senior ranks, proved itself ahead of more famous clubs with its community and education programmes. It was a pioneer of girl's football and flexible approaches, which allowed talented teenagers - including Scotland international Don Cowie - to fit schoolwork around training.

A recent innovation is Little Dribblers, which shows it is in tune with the growing "early intervention" mantra in Scottish educational circles. The project, which has run in several towns, works on pre-school children's movement, motor skills and football expertise, providing a rare example of organised physical activity for them.

But budgetary pressures have hit the club. The Lifeskills Through Sport project, which helped those on the fringes of education, work, training or their community, fell by the wayside last year.

But Ross County's bond with its surrounding community remains deep and extends far beyond the 5,000 citizens of Dingwall, as coaching programes in Shetland and Orkney have testified. Perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise that the club sold a staggering 20,000 tickets for the cup final.

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