Stenhousemuir may be a second division football club, but it's first class when it comes to getting children to play. Roddy Mackenzie reports.
Stenhousemuir may not be the highest-profile football club but, even compared with Rangers and Celtic, it has an impressive youth structure. What other part-time club in Scotland can boast a full-time youth development officer and a youth initiative director?
If the Second Division club does not quite offer a "cradle to grave" set-up for anyone who wants to play for it, it is not far short. Children as young as five are playing in a maroon shirt and, with the youth set-up at the club now running for seven years, it won't be long till the fruits of its labours are shown by a player coming through to the first team.
Following Scottish Football Association (SFA) guidelines, children do not play the full 11-a-side game before the age of 11. Stenhousemuir's "Young Maroons" club is for 5 to 11 year olds with youngsters up to the age of eight receiving skills development only and 9-11 playing Soccer Sevens.
Players progress to Stenhousemuir boys' club, which has 11-a-side teams at Under-12, Under-13, Under-14 and Under-15 levels in the Central Boys' League. They go on to the Under-16 and then the Under-18 team which plays in the Scottish Youth Leagues.
Stenhousemuir does not only cater for boys. On a trip to Norway a couple of years ago, its Under-13 team included two girls. The club has taken over the former Cumbernauld Ladies team after beating off competition from Rangers and Motherwell. The team plays under the Stenhousemuir name in the Scottish Women's Premier League and is on course to win the title.
All of this is a long-term investment scheme by the club and it will be a few years before it can be properly measured, but Stenhousemuir has seen the value of breeding its own.
"We started the scheme initially as a way of getting more people to come to our home games," confesses Martin McNairney, a director of the football club who is also youth initiative director. "On the first day, we had five children and we thought that the scheme would maybe last for a couple of weeks, but it has mushroomed since then and spiralled virtually out of control. There are now 250 children playing at some level, and attached to the club.
"All the youngsters who have joined get a card which gives them free entry to home league games and we're currently working with Falkirk Council to visit the 52 primary schools in the area to do development courses.
"Through that, we'll be sending 3,000 parent-child tickets for our matches and we're looking at setting up development centres and even a soccer academy.
"We want to be in a position to attract the best young players in the area to Stenhousemuir, as it will be t the club's advantage in the long-term."
Stenhousemuir has managed to succeed in spite of the fact that it has received no funding for a development officer from the SFA. But due to the success of its youth structure, it won pound;20,000 from the SFA, which was partly used to appoint Tom Elliot as the club's development officer.
"As a part-time club, we were maybe not one of the priorities for a development officer post, and we have a first division team on our doorstep (Falkirk)," continues Mr McNairney. "There is also competition in this area from Alloa, East Stirling and Stirling Albion, but no one works harder in this area than us."
The facilities at Larbert High and Stenhousemuir primary are fully utilised by the football club and small-sided games can be seen throughout the area on Saturdays, Sundays and midweek.
Through a link with Falkirk College, the club is also protecting young professional players and ensuring they do not end up on the "scrapheap" at 18. For every David Beckham, there are thousands of aspiring young footballers who never make the grade. Every coach can give an example of an outstanding school footballer who never cut it in the big league for some reason.
"We have no hard and fast figures, but we work on the premise that for every 10 players signed on a youth form by a professional club, only one makes it," says Tony Higgins, secretary of the Scottish Professional Footballers' Association. "There is a high drop-off rate and we are looking at this closely."
David Fairweather, curriculum director at Falkirk College, is aware that there can be a conflict between sport and academic work. The college offers football training in the mornings and the chance to work towards academic qualifications in the afternoon. There are 11 Stenhousemuir players on the scheme and another six from the women's team.
"We know that young footballers can have the world at their feet at 16 but be out the door at 18 with no qualifications," Mr Fairweather says. "Professional football is highly competitive and a good percentage don't make it. Youngsters at Stenhousemuir have a minimum eight hours of football a week, and for four afternoons a week at the college they can develop areas like IT skills over a two-year programme."
The college can offer suitable courses at higher national certificate and diploma levels and give young players a safety net if their professional football dreams fail.
The scheme is being extended to other sports such as badminton and swimming, so promising athletes can further their sporting and academic qualifications.
"The scheme is in its infancy but we are looking at stronger links with the schools and there is the possibility of looking at an academy type of arrangement," Mr Fairweather says.