Indoor game gets a helping hand
Handball, a game that grew out of Scotland's new towns 30 years ago, then suffered growing pains, is set for a fresh spurt of development.
Getting it played in schools is now high on the agenda.
The sport has been awarded pound;3 million for the next three years from UK Sport, as it strives to build British teams capable of competing at the 2012 London Olympics. The Scottish Handball Association has also received Pounds 10,000 from SportScotland, including pound;5,000 of Lottery funding, for coaching and organisational development.
The governing body has just launched the Smart Plan project to take the game into schools over the next three years. The initiative is a partnership between the European Handball Federation, four education authorities - Edinburgh, West Lothian, North Lanarkshire and South Lanarkshire - and SportScotland.
Stephen Neilson, chairman of the SHA, says it is difficult to over-emphasise the part schools will play in the future success of the game.
"Smart Plan is a big grassroots project for us with 80-100 schools involved over the three years," he says. "We are working with both primary schools and secondary schools, during the school day and in after-school clubs.
"We are hopeful that we will have new clubs springing up throughout Scotland. At present, there are 10 clubs and we are looking to produce school-club pathways to those, but we're also hoping to form new clubs."
The SHA has appointed a development officer, Fred Wallace, who works four days a week, and there are voluntary development officers in place throughout the country.
"It's all been very positive," says Mr Wallace. "The local authorities are giving us a lot of backing and the children I have been working with have really taken to the game."
Handball is hugely popular on the Continent. A television audience of 720 million watched the last European Championships. In Germany, league matches regularly attract 10,000 spectators and the country boasts a million players. Denmark, a country with a similar population to Scotland, has 130,000 registered players.
"Indoor sports have never really taken off as spectator sports in Scotland, which is strange given the climate," says Mr Neilson, "but with London winning the Olympic bid, there is new hope for sports like handball."
Earlier this month, he visited Denmark to look at facilities and to see what Britain must strive towards if it is to make any impact in 2012. There are plans for a purpose-built 10,000-seat stadium in London to host matches and this would be left as a legacy to the sport. But the limited facilities in Scotland has only doubled the SHA's determination to promote the sport.
"The game really took off in Scotland in the 1970s. It seemed to grow in the new towns like Cumbernauld and East Kilbride," Mr Neilson says. "The new sports centres, like the John Wright centre in East Kilbride, were looking for new sports and handball was very popular. But as the first generation of players stopped playing as they grew too old, the game suffered a dip.
"It is still relatively new. The association was only formed in 1972, whereas in the likes of Denmark and Germany, the game has been played for over 100 years."
Since the Olympics were awarded to London, there has been an upsurge of interest here, Mr Neilson says. He sees this as a tremendous opportunity.
"The challenge for us is the lack of facilities and equipment." A full-size court is 40m x 20m but there are very few of those in Scotland. "We've been getting by on adapting sports halls to suit our needs, but it's a bit like the jumpers for goalposts scenario in football," he says.
He believes teachers like the sport because it is inclusive and easy to teach. It works on the three basic skills of catching, passing and shooting and boys and girls can play.
The five-a-side game can be accommodated in most school gyms. It is not difficult to adapt a hall to play the game by putting down markings with tape. If there are no mini-goalposts, you can even tape goals on the walls.
There is a limited amount of handball going on in schools already: 22 primaries in the Glasgow area attended an annual festival at the Kelvin Hall in April. The Smart Plan will take this activity to another level. Mr Neilson is even hopeful that some players could emerge from the project to play for Britain at the 2012 Olympics.
A lot would have to be crammed into a few years.
"It's a big step up for us to take to reach the higher level, as it is such a high standard in Europe," he explains. "But if we can get athletes to train for 15-20 hours a week and get them into foreign clubs, then we can progress quickly.
"It is a hard game at the professional level. It requires players to be well built and strong. But there is not the same physical contact there has been in the past, or even compared to a game like rugby. Rule changes in recent years have cleaned up the game so that the advantage is with the skilful players, and the game is getting faster.
"It is a sport that has a lot to offer, both from the players' and spectators' points of view, and it would be fantastic to see it take off in Scotland."