Small starts that lead to Hampden

It is almost 20 years since Andy Roxburgh, then technical director of the Scottish Football Association, advocated small-sided soccer as a way for youngsters to hone their skills. Such forward thinking was met by obstacles but the success of Soccer Sevens is undeniable.

John Watson, general secretary of the Scottish Schools'

Football Association, admits it has taken time for seven-a-side games to be wholly accepted but now they are woven into the fabric of football development.

"In the past three or four years, I think the seven-a-side game has become accepted across the board. There was a feeling in some quarters when it first came in that it wasn't real football but that thinking has generally been eradicated," he says.

"We are getting to the stage where everyone starts out playing the small-sided game and they progress to the full 11-a-side game.

"Players coming through to play for schools international teams now have better developed skills than they did in the past. You can see their close-control and touches on the ball are better.

"This can only be good for Scottish football in the long term. It looks like the SFA's policy of getting small-sided goals to schools a few years ago has paid off.

"There was a perception that many of these goals were stuck away in cupboards and forgotten about but obviously there was a lot of activity going on in different parts of the country, even if it wasn't highly publicised."

The finals of the Coca-Cola Soccer Sevens tournament for 12-year-old boys and 12-and 13-year-old girls, which is overseen by the SSFA, took place at Hampden Park in Glasgow last weekend. The top 32 teams in both categories played in the regional finals at Lesser Hampden to whittle down the finalists to eight teams in each category. The Hampden ground was split into three pitches and free tickets were given out to schools.

This is the second year of the event and its growth in popularity has been staggering. Last year 140 teams took part but the entry mushroomed to 397 this year. Schools can enter several teams and there is no charge for entries.

The organisers have been encouraged by the number of girls' teams taking part: 135 entered this year, which was a 37 per cent increase.

A total of 4,000 schoolchildren across Scotland have taken part this year and the numbers have convinced the organisers that the tournament will continue to grow.

"I think in its first year there were communication difficulties with the schools. Now that has been sorted out, the tournament will grow," said Alan Halliday, regional director of Coca-Cola Enterprises in Scotland.

"Of the 397 teams that entered this year, 186 schools were represented. But there are 403 secondary schools in Scotland, so there is still scope for growth.

"The skills-based part is obviously important as even children who have no chance of getting to the regional finals can get a taste of what it is like to experience professional coaching.

"But the simple objective is to get children playing football. At Hampden Park, the elite 13-year-olds in the country were playing and if one of those goes on to play for Scotland 10 years down the line, then it will be fantastic."

Coca-Cola's sponsorship, which runs into six figures and is supplemented by a pound;35,000 Sportsmatch grant from Sportscotland, runs until 2004, at which point there will be an option to renew.

The competition starts locally in January, progresses to regional finals and then to the national finals at Hampden Park in June.

Not only does it give children the chance to play on the famous turf but there are opportunities to have professional coaching. The way the tournament is structured means that at local level games are played in the morning and the players get the chance of skills training after lunch.

Sandy Clark, the former Hearts and St Johnstone manager, who holds a UEFA pro licence coaching certificate, the highest coaching qualification in Britian, oversees the training.

"Every 12-year-old schoolchild in Scotland can play in this event," says Mr Watson. "There are now more teams in this tournament than any other of the SSFA competitions at secondary level.

"Having a company of Coca-Cola's standing involved has been absolutely brilliant.

"The fact that Hampden Park hosts the final is obviously a big attraction for schools. Not only that, there are a number of competitions running in conjunction with the tournament and schools can get the use of a mini-bus for a year and then get the opportunity to purchase it at a good rate. In all, 23 minibuses have been offered as prizes. That is a bonus."

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you