Scottish independent schools have made great strides in football in just two years. As Michael Casey (left) steps out of the leadership spotlight, Roddy Mackenzie talks to him about taking on England and other hopes for the future
Scotland could be facing England in an independent schools' football match for the first time within the next year. Strides made since the Scottish Independent Schools' Football Association was set up less than two years ago have convinced the body that an international game would be the next significant step.
Two years ago, there were no independent schools in Scotland taking part in organised football. Earlier this month, the second SISFA Cup final was played at Heart of Midlothian's home, Tynecastle Stadium in Edinburgh, in front of a crowd of almost 1,000.
It was fitting that, by virtue of a second-half goal from Steven Cook, George Watson's College should win the trophy 1-0 over George Heriot's. It was through the energy and imagination of Michael Casey, a history and modern studies teacher at the school, that the independents' competition was conceived and now he is to step aside as organiser in the hope that an administrative committee will be set up to provide a formal structure to point the way forward.
The SISFA has been working independently of the Scottish Schools' Football Association, which runs schools football in Scotland, but the SSFA did send a representative to advise at its general meeting last year.
"A lot of progress has been made in the past two years and I feel independent schools' football can't be a cottage industry any more," Mr Casey explains. "First and foremost, I am a teacher and can't devote the time to take it to the next level. It's time to make way for younger teachers who can set up a proper administrative structure.
"I know there may be a case for the 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'
argument, but it needs to be more structured."
Part of the remit of the new administration that is set up will be to provide the groundwork for international games. This season, trials were held for a Scotland team, with west and north schools playing east schools, but that was as far as the proposal went.
Any committee should also take into account individual schools' needs, says Mr Casey. "If the likes of Strathallan and Glenalmond feel they can only play between February and the Easter break, they should be accommodated."
Seeing George Watson's College win the cup was great, he says. "To think of where we were in April 1997 and where we are now, with 32 schools playing the sport, was really satisfying."
Such an uptake from independent schools cannot be ignored. However, Mr Casey feels that football should not be seen as an alternative to their traditional rugby but an extension of the choice of sports available to pupils.
One pupil at George Watson's College, Dario Crolla, made the SSFA's under-18 national team, which is dominated by players from state schools.
Independent schools now enter SSFA competitions on a regular basis and have been recording some notable results. George Watson's under-18 team is regarded as one of the best - from state or independent schools - in the Lothians. It finished the season in third place in the Lothian League, behind Craigmount High, who won the SSFA Centenary Shield at Hampden Park, and St Augustine's High.
Mr Casey recognises that other football barriers are breaking down too. In April, a primary level independent schools game was held when Edinburgh's Stewart's Melville College played Beaconshurst of Bridge of Allan. There are also, now, under-16 and girls' festivals.
He also sees football as a marketing opportunity for schools.
"It's well known that independent schools have to review their situation financially. It's been in the national press," he says. "I think they have to see football not as a cultural problem but as a marketing opportunity.
Then I think the future is bright, especially if the schools embrace girls'
football. If they can nurture girls from a P1-P2 age, as they do in the United States, then there is a tremendous financial opportunity for schools."
Mr Casey believes that football, traditionally a working-class sport in Britain, is moving more towards the middle classes, given its blanket media coverage. He believes the goalposts are being shifted both at school and professional levels.
"I believe that football needs the middle classes to help solve some of its problems. There needs to be a more sophisticated approach to the game here," he argues.
"If you look at the French players and coaches who are coming over here, there is a degree of sophistication that perhaps some of our players don't have.
"Glasgow is maybe not the lifeblood of the game in Scotland any more. If you look at the boys who are in the schools national squads, then there appear to be more and more from outwith Glasgow, like Aberdeen and Edinburgh.
"The theory that Celtic's 1967 Lisbon Lions team were all brought up within 20 miles of Parkhead is not important now."
Mr Casey also notes that facilities in independent schools are generally better than in state ones, pointing out that grass pitches at Glasgow schools are rare. Given such facilities, football should not overlook what independent schools can bring to the game as debate about its future in Scotland continues.