Rod Houston has swapped management hats from school to the new Highland Football Academy. Roddy Mackenzie talks to him about promoting excellence in the game
The depute headteacher at Golspie High, Rod Houston, expects to spend more time listening than instructing for a while after changing fields from geography to soccer. He has been seconded to be development manager of the new Highland Football Academy.
The Highland region's two Scottish League clubs, Ross County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle, have joined forces with the local authority to set up the academy, which has a broad remit to promote participation and pursue excellence in the sport. The move, announced in April 2002, is almost akin to Rangers and Celtic laying aside their differences to ensure the game's future is in safe hands.
Those hands, at least initially, belong to Mr Houston. A former manager of Brora Rangers in the Highland League, he has coaching and scouting experience in the Scottish League and, at 52, was going through the rigours of the UEFA youth coaching badge last week, He has a long involvement in schools' football at local, regional and national level and is an assistant general secretary of the Scottish Schools' Football Association.
"This is an incredible opportunity and challenge for me," he says.
"It's a unique situation, certainly in the UK, that two professional clubs and a council are working together. All three parties are very committed to it.
"Ross County and Inverness Caley Thistle both have excellent youth programmes and a lot of good work has been done in the past few years. They are very progressive clubs and have come from nowhere 10 years ago to being in the top 20 in Scottish football and both have a commitment to excellence."
His job, he says, is a case of building on that. "I have to look at all the issues.
"There is a very successful semi-professional league here in the Highland League and we will have to relate to that and there is a successful Highland Amateur Cup. Coach education and the shortage of referees in the area is also something the academy will need to address."
He will study the football academy at Rangers as well as successful set-ups at English clubs before recommending what is the best way forward for Highland. He does not rule out taking elite players on a residential basis, but that would not be in the near future.
Mr Houston has been given a blank canvas on which to work. With the criticism levelled at Scottish football recently - from the perilous finances of the top clubs to the meek performances of the national team - there is no easy place to start. However, he is sanguine.
He argues that the potential for the game is stronger than ever now, due to the number of players who have come through small-sided football in schools.
"Soccer Sevens in Highland schools has been an unparalleled success," he says.
"I've been coaching north of Scotland under-15 schools football since the late 1970s and I would say the under-15 players nowadays are two or three years more advanced technically than they were back then. That is down to the seven-a-side game.
"And there are now more examples throughout the area of better coaching in schools football."
"We generally hold our own at schools' international level," he points out.
Indeed, the national schools under-16 team won the boys' Ballymena International tournament last year.
"One of the biggest challenges we have at the Highland academy, or indeed throughout the national game, is the transition from youth player to full-time young professional. That's where we seem to be experiencing a lot of problems," he says.
"Some senior clubs have been reluctant to give young players a chance, as the need for instant success is so important, but it will be forced upon them in the current financial climate and many more young players will get an opportunity."
Mr Houston did not want to be drawn on the ongoing dispute between some Scottish Premierleague clubs and the SSFA about releasing youth players for schools' matches (Rangers, Celtic, Hibernian and Hearts are still refusing to release their schoolboy players). However, he does not see a conflict between the academy and professional clubs.
He understands that every club is in competition to attract the best young players but foresees a climate of "onward recruitment" for players who go through the academy. He sees the academy as not only searching for the next generation of football players, but also playing a key role in the Highland community.
"Football is still the bedrock sport of this country," he argues. "It's also a vehicle for promoting healthy lifestyles and the council is very keen to promote that. The academy will be for the whole community and we need to see that it is utilised correctly."
The academy, a pound;2.1 million project supported by the Scottish Executive and SportScotland, has yet to be officially opened but at Dingwall the indoor arena, built on land leased from Ross County, is already well used. Two grass football pitches are not yet in use. At Charleston, Inverness, a floodlit all-weather pitch is planned for and two grass pitches have been laid but are not yet in use.
The opening hours of the academy will be from 9am to 10pm daily to allow full use of the facilities. Meanwhile, a number of open days are planned this month.
Highland Football Academy, tel 01349 863399