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Not just booting the ball away;Sport

Whatever happens in the England match, Roddy Mackenzie sees hope for the future in the current youngsters.

Scotland's footballing welfare will be judged on the small matter of two games against England within the next week. If Scotland loses - and thereby fails to qualify for the final stages of the Euro 2000 Championships - then, inevitably, the microscope will be turned on youth football.

The Scottish Schools' Football Association (SSFA) is accustomed to this. If and when the senior national team fails to qualify for a major championship, the SSFA and the Scottish Football Association (SFA) are asked to come up with answers.

Too many games, too much competition, poor facilities and poor coaching - these are the old criticisms and no doubt they will come to light again.

A glance around the team line-ups from last weekend's Premier League shows fewer and fewer Scottish-raised players holding down first-team berths.

Yet Jim Sinclair, the children's programme director of the SFA, thinks there is ground for optimism. He sees more schools and youth games than most, and he believes there has been a shift in the way our young players approach the game.

He cites recent games in the SFA Youth Leagues: "I see a lot of encouraging signs there. Whereas in the past, I've seen youngsters booting the ball up the park, now I see them trying to pass the ball out. I believe the standard is excellent and the players are getting better and stronger all the time."

The advent of seven-a-side, and now four-a-side, games has helped improve skill levels. And Mr Sinclair is pleased at the response to the SFA coaching courses. "Our big problem now is keeping the participation levels going in the 13-18 age-group," he says. "The problem goes across all sports. Identifying talent at that age group is a matter for the professional clubs and the SFA, but we have to look at the broader picture. A lot of the clubs are just concentrating on the best, but we are now looking at the tier below and the later developers.

"Many people are coming to the conclusion that the child who is star in the early years is not necessarily the one that shines brightest at the end. The game changes throughout school. Maybe the 'tanner ba' player does not develop as well in other aspects, and his game starts to suffer when he is asked to pass the ball 30 or 40 yards."

Small-sided football has been hugely popular in Scotland. But there has been criticism that when the emphasis is more on skills than winning it can curb a child's natural competitive instinct.

It's a criticism Mr Sinclair is keen to set straight. "The small-sided game was wrongly construed as being non-competitive. We wanted the game to be competitive between the two teams on the pitch," he argues. "But we wanted to take away the competitive element from the adults who were standing on the sidelines and were concerned solely with winning cups and leagues."

Of course, while the facilities in Scotland have improved, they are still some way short of what the SFA would wish.

Scotland manager Craig Brown recently argued that the reason Glasgow produces few top-class goalkeepers, despite the number of youngsters playing the game, is that there are so many ash pitches that children are reluctant to play in goal.

Mr Sinclair knows the situation is not ideal and the harsh Scottish winter does not help. But he says: "It's better to put a good coach in bad facilities than a bad coach in good facilities."

Ahead of tomorrow's senior Scotland v England match at Hampden, there seems to be some evidence the youth of today can provide the inspiration for tomorrow. The Scottish Schoolboys' Under-15 team, with an unbeaten 18-match run and comfortable victories over Wales and Northern Ireland in the Victory Shield, were due to face England last night to decide the championship at Palmerston Park in Dumfries.

It may be simplistic to put that success down to small-sided games, but it has certainly helped the development of many in the Scottish squad.

Maybe there is more reason to be optimistic about Scottish football's future than many observers currently argue.

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