The popularity of football in Scottish independent schools has grown sufficiently to spawn a new cup tournament, Roddy Mackenzie reports
Times are changing in schools football. Not only are girls now permitted to play in secondary schools national competitions, but also a national football cup competition for independent schools is being launched this year.
Ever since Richard Webb Ellis picked the ball up during a football game at Rugby School, football has not had much of a look-in at independent schools. However, such is the growth of the game and the blanket coverage it receives in the media that football is now reaching other parts.
The 18 schools which have entered this year's Scottish Independent Schools Cup have been split into three regional groups.
The prime mover behind the tournament is Michael Casey, a history master at George Watson's College in Edinburgh, who used to play in midfield for Harlow Town, Essex, in the semi-professional Ryman League in England. He was aware that independent schools were playing the odd game of football but, when he wrote to all the independent schools three or four years ago to suggest setting up a competition, he received only one reply. "It was just a case that no one was willing to go over the trench and over the field and get shot at," he says.
Mr Casey quotes the 19th-century Fabian Sidney Webb when he speaks of "the inevitability of gradualness". He says: "When other schools saw that we were doing it, then I'm sure they started to ask why they were not getting the opportunity."
He continues: "Last year, I saw an interview on television with English referee David Elleray, who said he was refereeing the English Independent Schools Cup final at Leicester's Filbert Street. I phoned a contact at Shrewsbury School and learned the set-up from him and what it would take to run a similar competition in Scotland."
The Scottish Schools Football Association welcomes the move from the independent schools and secretary John Watson has been involved in discussions with Mr Casey.
In addition to entering two teams in the tournament, George Watson's College has also entered the SSFA Bank of Scotland Under-15 and Senior Shield competitions this year.
Edinburgh neighbour George Heriot's has entered for the Senior Shield too.
"I have received a lot of support from the school and the headmaster, Gareth Edwards, but football is not the only sport that has taken off," Mr Casey points out. "Participation in sport is up 20 per cent in the past two years and the likes of netball and badminton are also going well."
Mr Casey believes there is no reason why rugby and football cannot co-exist in independent schools and many pupils will see football as a desirable option.
Given Scotland's failures against Croatia and Belgium in their World Cup qualifying group recently, and talk of a dearth of young talent coming through, any additional area on which football can draw should be welcomed.
Quinton Fortune (Manchester United) came from an independent school background. Mr Casey believes that the fact that independent schools north of the border are taking up the game is simply a reflection of society.
"A lot of schools found resistance and you have to be careful how it is portrayed. No doubt some tabloid newspapers would see it as public schools playing a horrible, working-class game but things have to change with the times," he says.
"There is no room for the overt snobbery in rugby and the inverted snobbery in football. Football is changing, the same way as society is changing.
"It used to be the case that working-class people voted Labour and the middle classes Conservative, but that is not necessarily the case now.
"Football needs all the players it can get, from whatever source."
George Watson's College also plans to host a football team from Canada and play a match against the American School in London.
SCOTTISH INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS FOOTBALL CUP
The Scottish Independent Schools Football Cup groups are assigned as follows:
Scotland West: Lomond School; Kelvinside Acad; Hutchesons' GS; Wellington School; Hamilton Coll; Belmont Acad.
Scotland East: George Watson's Coll; George Watson's Second XI; George Heriot's; Fettes; Stewart's Melville; Merchiston Castle.
Scotland North: Queen Victoria School; Dollar Acad; International School of Aberdeen; Strathallan; Gordonstoun; Glenalmond.
Matches must be completed by February.