Champions in a league of their own

3rd July 2009 at 01:00
Girls' football teams in a small north-east secondary have enjoyed extraordinary success. Henry Hepburn finds out why

The west of Scotland's industrial hinterlands have always been a hotbed of football talent. The sport exploded in popularity a century ago as talented youngsters saw an escape route from the factories and shipyards, and the bulk of our best footballers have come from this part of the world ever since. Right?

Not in girls' football: the dominant force is in a town of 2,700 people where the most famous employer is a former UK chip shop of the year and the surrounding landscape rolling farmland. When Mintlaw Academy defeated Selkirk High 7-2 in Forfar last month, the team became national under-18 champions for the fourth year in a row.

It is a remarkable success story. Ten years ago, there was no girls' team. The twin daughters of principal guidance teacher Janice Robinson complained. Their mum, despite a lack of football experience, got things going and even took on coaching responsibilities.

Mintlaw took a few thrashings, but rapid progress was made. When the school's HMIE report was published this year, three examples of good practice got a special mention: use of digital exams to support learners; the contribution of an artist-in-residence; and achievement through girls' football.

This summer, Faye Robertson, Jenny Davidson and Lisa Kidd can boast of having been Scottish champions for each of their six years at school, having won the equivalent under-15s competition three times before stepping up. Former pupil Kim Little scored 25 goals last season in helping Arsenal Ladies win the English treble; another ex-player, Leanne Reid, won a soccer scholarship to Tennessee's Lincoln Memorial University.

Support from the school and beyond has been crucial, says PE teacher and under-18s coach Murray Carnie. A biennial fundraising drive for extra- curricular activities raises between Pounds 15,000 and Pounds 22,000. This is crucial, as the annual bus bill for getting sports teams around comes to about Pounds 10,000. Mintlaw is 33 miles north of Aberdeen and girls' teams have faced marathon trips to play in Wick, the Borders and Stornoway.

Headteacher Willie McWhirr pinpoints three reasons for success. First, many feeder primary schools are small, and boys have no choice but to include girls if they want to play football. Second, many players also turn out for the successful Buchan Girls club. Third, he points to enlightened coaches, who avoid "macho shouting" and concentrate instead on skills. It is an approach he believes girls respond to well, and has led to a more cerebral, passing style of play than often found in Scottish youth football.

Kim Little, 18, the most illustrious of that group, played for Hibernian before moving on to Arsenal. The attacking midfielder has played around 30 times for Scotland and aims one day to make it in the USA, home of the world's strongest full-time professional women's league.

"Mintlaw Academy is definitely a reason why I've done so well," she says, recalling that many of her team-mates did not have the option to play football at school.

She explains that the set-up at her old school was highly professional and involved far more than the PE department. Football co-ordinator is co- principal guidance teacher John Peterson, who this year had to fit in 85 fixtures for the school's various teams. History, technical and physics teachers have also played a part, but there is no question of glory- hunting. "They always did it, not just since we had success," says Kim.

Faye Robertson, captain of this year's winning team and daughter of under- 15s coach Gordon, believes the latest triumph in the Bank of Scotland Scottish Schools Shield is the most impressive.

"In the past, there have been one or two really extraordinary players and the main focus was on them," she says. "But because we're all the same this year, it was more of an achievement to win."

Faye believes the close friendship between all the girls, many of whom have played together since they were eight, is crucial. She also credits understanding staff who raised few complaints about the team missing whole days to play in Helensburgh and Ayr, both about five hours away.

Faye is heading to Edinburgh University to train as a PE teacher. If she took one lesson from Mintlaw Academy into her career, it would be to give everyone a chance. Some players in her winning team had never played football before arriving at the school, but were encouraged just as much as the Buchan Girls cohort.

Between 50 and 60 girls at the 840-pupil school play football regularly, including some who have no desire to play for teams. Mintlaw Academy does not define success entirely by the winning of trophies, but also by participation levels.

"One of the highlights of the final was getting every one of the 18 squad members on the pitch," says Mr Carnie.

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