US football has seen tough times but now schoolgirls have the ball and are running with it, writes Roddy Mackenzie
It is not something you want to go saying to a 6ft 6in 20-stone linebacker but American football is a girls' game. That is to say, flag football, the non-contact version of the sport, which is catching on in Scottish primary schools, is a game at which girls are proving more proficient than boys.
A pilot scheme for the five-a-side game was set up a month ago in North Lanarkshire, where 180 Primary 7 children from 15 schools in the area have access to after-hours coaching. The children visit four schools - St Margaret's High in Airdrie, St Maurice's High in Cumbernauld, Clyde Valley High in Wishaw and Thornlee Primary in Wishaw - to play the game. Secondary teachers supervise them under the guidance of coaches from the Scottish Claymores, Scotland's only professional American football team.
Hugh Murray, the Claymores' flag football co-ordinator, believes the game is ideal for schools. "I think PE departments see it as the ideal game to develop motor skills in children," he says. "There are very few sports now in Scotland where you throw the ball a lot. In rugby, it's more a case of passing it underarm, and cricket is still not played that widely in Scottish schools. Admittedly, the first instinct of many of the boys is to kick the ball, but that is only natural when most have been brought up on soccer.
"Flag football is a game that can be played indoors or out and does not require a lot of equipment as all you need is a ball, cones to mark out the pitch and a set of flags.
"It also encourages teams to think up their own plays and it's a game where you do not need to be big or particularly fast to play, so everyone can join in.
"We stipulate that two of the five players in a team are girls and they have really taken to the game. They tend to have a better hand-eye co-ordination than boys at that age and mature younger. It means that they tend to be the quarterbacks or the receivers and the boys fill in the other roles."
Mr Murray concedes that there is nothing to offer girls once they graduate from flag football at the age of 15. In the United States, there is a semi-contact, kitted game for women but that is still some way from being introduced in Scotland.
The Claymores have been in touch with every school in Glasgow to offer the chance to play flag football and every school child in the city has been offered a free ticket to one of the Claymores' games. Soon a Glasgow scheme similar to the one in North Lanarkshire, which brings children together at central venues, will be launched as the Claymores seek to catch players at a young age.
Steve McCusker, the Claymores' Scottish national coach, has played American football since 1985, when he was a 14-year-old in the Glasgow Diamonds' junior team. He has seen first-hand thepeaks and troughs of the game in Scotland so far. He recalls that there were 10 clubs playing in the Scottish Youth Championships in 1987 and within a couple of years there were 20 clubs playing at senior level. Presently, there are only four clubs playing the amateur game in Scotland.
The Claymores started in 1995 and while they have given the game a much higher profile in Scotland, Mr McCusker says that for their first two or three years, the state of the grass-roots game here was largely ignored.
"There were a few wrong corners turned," he admits, "but we've learned from the mistakes and when I came into the job at the Claymores in 1999, it was 10 times easier for me as Scott Couper (the Claymores' national receiver who promoted the grass-roots game) had already done a lot of work with children.
"I remember going to my first practice at Glasgow Diamonds and there were 110 kids there; half my school went. That's how popular the game was back then. But it has picked up in the past three years with the Claymores' development squad."
Scotland beat England 44-0 at youth level last year, a result which made people south of the border take notice. There were eight Scottish players in the Great Britain youth team last year but there could be as many as 18 this time, Mr McCusker believes.
There are 150 players involved in the kitted contact game in Scotland and the best players now have access to coaching from the Claymores' American coaching staff on a weekly basis.
"I think what impresses the American coaches is the attitude of the young Scottish players," continues Mr McCusker. "They are so dedicated and, because there were difficulties for them getting started in the game, they don't take anything for granted. If anything, they work hard at getting to training and they have a great enthusiasm for the game, perhaps because it has not been part of our culture.
"We had one player from Dundee last year who travelled to all of the Great Britain coaching sessions, whether they were in Milton Keynes or Birmingham, and went to extraordinary lengths to play. But when he got to the European Youth Cup in Berlin he developed a blood clot and couldn't play.
"It is that sort of dedication that has taken aback the American coaches. The players have the hunger to do well."
Mr McCusker believes that for a youngster to develop fully in the game, he still needs to spend time at an American college or university. While there may in future be the same level of competition here, it is still some way off.
"In American universities, every player is an athlete first and foremost and it comes down to who desires it most," he says. "The competition level that players need is over there."
Nevertheless, in Scotland now players can graduate from flag football to the contact game and the fruit of their labours will be evident in years to come.