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Fun way to bridge premier division

Glasgow's Old Firm football clubs have joined forces to teach children about healthy lifestyles, not just being active and eating well but crucially having positive attitudes towards others, Roddy Mackenzie reports

Three days after a highly-charged Old Firm football match, Glasgow remains a city divided. Local radio phone-ins remain clogged with arguments about which yellow cards were justified and how a player should appropriately celebrate a goal.

However, at Cranhill Beacon community centre, 8-year-old supporters of Celtic and Rangers - boys and girls - sit side by side. Some have pulled on green training bibs emblazoned with the message "Train and Play the Celtic Way".

They are here for the Old Firm Alliance, a joint coaching initiative officially launched last month by the rival clubs to tackle the scourge of sectarianism and bigotry. They will target 128 primary schools across Glasgow, within the next year, with about 90,000 attendances by P4s.

The plan is for pupils to train with a Celtic coach and a Rangers coach, each for five weeks during school time. David Stewart is co-ordinating the Rangers' programme and Greig Robertson the Celtic one.

In addition, there are extra-curricular sessions taken jointly by Celtic and Rangers coaches in local community centres - such as Cranhill Beacon - in Glasgow's social inclusion partnership (SIP) areas: Greater Easterhouse, Greater Govan, Greater Pollock, the Gorbals, the East End, Drumchapel, Castlemilk and Glasgow North.

Although football is the main vehicle of the programme - and the coaches will tell you that every player will improve - the main aims of the Old Firm Alliance are to promote a healthy lifestyle and, significantly, challenge sectarian attitudes. Both Rangers and Celtic have been criticised in the past for turning a blind eye to bigotry between supporters. Those attitudes are now being challenged.

On the opening night of the extra-curricular programme at Cranhill Beacon, Mr Stewart delivers the coaching message jointly with Celtic community coach Carrie Lynch. Celtic and Rangers shirts inter-mingle as local pupils from primary schools in Cranhill, Avenue End and Commonhead train together.

"We've specifically targeted P4s for the project because we think at that age these kids are starting to develop an understanding of many issues," says Mr Stewart. "It allows the role-model coaches to inculcate positive attitudes and values.

"It's all geared towards getting kids from some of Glasgow's most deprived areas and giving them opportunities to participate in a sporting activity and to make positive lifestyle choices."

The coaches go into school for an hour a week for 10 weeks and, at the end of each session, they deliver a healthy lifestyle message, he says. They talk about things such as diet and nutrition, flexibility, drugs, alcohol and smoking.

"It is a challenging but suitable curriculum for this age group, with the objective being activity, fun and skill development. We'll improve these players but the emphasis is on them enjoying it."

"In week 11 of the programme, we'll deliver an anti-sectarianism workshop, which will be done jointly by Rangers and Celtic coaches, led by Alison Logan, (the co-ordinator) of Sense over Sectarianism," Mr Stewart explains.

"We will find a central venue and invite all the primary schools to come together for this session.

"It is a powerful message as we are bringing denominational, non-denominational and special needs schools together. We're targeting issues such as territorialism by bringing these schools together, whereas if we did it in each individual school, it wouldn't be as strong."

Children on the programme will also get the chance to visit Celtic Park and Ibrox Stadium for stadium tours or matches, along with their parents, and even meet some of the current players. "It is about opening up doors for children and giving them opportunities."

Mr Stewart concedes that by P4 age (8 to 9 years), many children will already be aligned to one half of the Old Firm. "These children will come in with pre-meditated views on whether we are Rangers or Celtic fans," he says. "But we work on basic things, such as, at the end of each session, the children have to give both the Rangers coach and the Celtic coach high-fives.

"There will be some that won't initially, but it's about challenging this and the coach speaking to them about it.

"They're at an age when they are impressionable and we feel we can get our values across to them."

The initiative is not solely about anti-sectarianism, Mr Stewart says; that is simply one component. "The whole programme is designed to develop stronger communities.

"Rather than getting children hanging about the streets, we're getting them into sport.

"We're also making a difference to families' lives. As well as giving the children information on a healthy lifestyle, we're giving the parents the same information."

Even at this early stage of the initiative, there have been signs of small breakthroughs.

"At this very session, Carrie handed a boy a Celtic ball and, as soon as her back was turned, he changed it," Mr Stewart says. "But, within half-an-hour, he had quite happily picked up the Celtic ball again.

"We're under no illusions; we don't think we're going to stop sectarianism with 10 weeks of coaching. But if we can make small changes and challenge attitudes, then that's success, because prior to these sessions, some of these children wouldn't be seen playing with a Celtic football.

"But we've had an abundance of these incidents. One small girl turned up for a video for the launch day with half a Rangers strip and half a Celtic strip which her mum had stitched together. She still wears it at the sessions.

"There was another small boy who was being bullied at school and his mum was quite sceptical about him being involved, as he had lost all his self-esteem. But within a couple of weeks he was enjoying it so much that he now wants his mum to decorate his bedroom, one half with Celtic wallpaper and the other half with Rangers wallpaper.

"He's changed his whole diet and his mum has stopped smoking after he came along. That's a huge success story for us."

The programme has been funded only for a year initially by the Old Firm clubs and Communities Scotland, the Scottish Executive's regeneration agency, but the organisers see it as sustainable and are hoping to put parents through coaching qualifications so that they can continue the work when the community coaches move on.

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