Football is being used as a hook to help hard-to-reach teens in North Glasgow find work. Shirley English reports
Thomas Irvine admits that less than a month ago he would not have had the confidence to interview Mark Hateley, the legendary Rangers footballer.
But today, the 18-year-old is the first to ask the former England striker a question during a mock press conference at Ibrox Stadium, staged as part of his sports coaching course.
Thomas is one of 16 recent school leavers, two of them girls, who are taking part in a 12-week pilot project called "Football for Life", run in partnership with Rangers Football Club, North Glasgow College and Glasgow North Regeneration Agency. The course is a mix of practical coaching sessions leading to national qualifications, and classroom-based activities aimed at improving IT, communication and literacy skills through innovative and exciting "lessons". Hence the Hateley interview.
The pilot was set up to re-engage the "hardest to reach" 16 to 19-year-olds in North Glasgow, where one in five leave school with few or no qualifications and no idea of what they want to do next. Many face social and economic barriers to finding work. The intention is to tempt them back into further education or training by using football as "a hook" and so far it is proving hugely successful.
Like his fellow students, Thomas was referred onto the pilot by the Get Ready for Work programme, run by Glasgow North Regeneration Agency. He left St Roch's Secondary last summer with a Higher in art and seven Standard grades at Credit level, but without a clue as to what he wanted to do.
"I took the summer holidays off and then was doing different stuff. I play football with a local team, but I had never really thought about coaching," he says.
He admits that one of his difficulties in finding work was his lack of confidence. So when he was pointed in the direction of the Football for Life pilot, he decided to give it a go, despite being a Celtic fan and having to face a "ribbing" from his dad.
"I thought it might help me make up my mind about what I wanted to do. I didn't have any confidence. I was pretty shy and I would hide at the back of the class," he says. "But now I can take classes (coaching sessions) and I was the first to ask Mark Hateley a question. It's really helped build my confidence. It's something I really look forward to."
His ambition is to become a sports coach.
The Football for Life pilot is a full-time commitment for the students, who are paid pound;60 a week for taking part. Other perks include match tickets and a Rangers kit. The course leads to SFA Children's Coaching certificates at Levels 1 and 2 and SQA vocational units in Leading Sport Activities.
Students spend one day a week at North Glasgow College, three days with the Get Ready for Work programme on work skills and placements, and one day at Ibrox, learning coaching techniques in the club's training facilities and the Rangers study support centre. Club coaches act as mentors, and staff from other departments take sessions to sign-post alternative career paths within sport.
Literacy and IT skills are developed almost "by stealth", according to Colin Atkinson, senior community officer at Rangers. He points out that planning a football trial on the computer in the study centre, coaching their peers on the training ground, or writing up a mock match report, all help to develop confidence and self-esteem, communication skills, team work and literacy, without the students even realising.
A typical day begins in the study support centre, where students have access to Coach FX software to plan coaching sessions, or football trials. After lunch, they go out on the training ground with a club coach; they might lead a training session with their peers, or work alongside Rangers staff coaching children in local primary schools.
"It is probably something they have never experienced before, coming to a professional club for work and training. The football is definitely an incentive," says Greg Statt, community coach.
"They are all interested in sport, but while they are here they are picking up basic soft skills - communication, forward planning, time keeping, respecting each other. These are all things they can use for the rest of their lives."
Football for Life is one of three successful training programmes run by Rangers, which focus on sport and confidence-building to encourage people back into education or employment.
The others are Soccer Success, a 29-week course which targets 15 to 16-year-olds, and Support Employment, a 10-week course aimed at men who have been unemployed for six months or more.
Michael Duffy, 16, left Springburn Academy last summer and "can't remember" which exams he passed. Until recently, he was equally uncertain about his future, but Football for Life has changed all that.
"Through this course I have decided what I want to do for the rest of my life," says Michael. "I'm going to try to get into college and get a degree in coaching and take it from there."
Michael, who is a Celtic fan, claims that "nothing like this ever crossed my mind before", even though he enjoyed a game of football in the park most Saturdays.
After leaving school he thought about learning a trade and tried joinery, but found that he was not that interested.
He could easily have drifted into unemployment. "A lot of my friends are finding it hard to get a job and one has just started at MacDonalds," he says.
However, now he looks forward to Fridays at Ibrox: "It's not like school. Here they treat you like an adult. This has given me more confidence and I've been able to work on communication and time-keeping. I now realise why they are important."