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Where footwork becomes school work

Football replaces subjects such as home economics, IT and art at a new Scottish academy dedicated to the sport, reports Emma Seith.In countries like Brazil, promising young football players practise for around 20 hours a week. And in European countries such as France, football academies have existed for years.

By contrast, Scotland's most talented youngsters only spend around six hours a week in practice, says Neil Mackintosh, head of youth development at the Scottish Football Association. If we want to produce top-quality players, he says, the only way to do it is by building training into the school day. "The theory is, you need to practise for 10,000 hours to become an expert in something," says Mr Mackintosh. "Clubs are limited in what they can do to bring on young players, because they've only got a certain period at night or at the weekend to coach them. The only way to top up that time is through the curriculum."

The SFA has, therefore, launched Scotland's first in-school football academy at Graeme High in Falkirk. Over two years the programme, which started at the beginning of term, will be assessed along with another SFA academy in Edinburgh, where youngsters train after school. The aim is to find the optimum youth coaching model for Scotland.

"In two years' time, we want to be able to say: 'This is what you need to run it nationally'," says Mr Mackintosh.

At Graeme High, nine boys - selected from 49 youngsters who attended trials - spend six periods out of 30 in practice with expert coaches like Mark McNally, the former Celtic and Dundee United defender and current assistant manager at Stirling Albion.

The boys are all in S1 - a "golden window of trainability", according to Mr Mackintosh. In order to fit football into their timetable, they miss PE and home economics, technical, IT or art. But organisers are positive their school work will not suffer unduly and if it does, it will be scrapped.

"If this programme does not fit in with school work, it will have failed. It must affect their academic performance positively."

And Mr Mackintosh is confident that it will.

"These youngsters are dedicated and committed," he continues. "They are disciplined and used to practice. All of these skills they use in sport, they can use elsewhere in the school."

According to Mr McNally, the programme is exactly what Scottish football needs. "This is long overdue," he says. "The more touches of the ball kids get, the more they are going to improve. These kids are talented in the first place and this is just the thing to give them that edge."

Half of the boys play for boys' clubs and the other half are attached to football clubs. The programme at Graeme High is designed to complement this training, giving the young players the technical, physical and psychological tools they need to thrive.

"What we can do here is the detail - the devil is always in the detail," says Mr Mackintosh. "It's about habit formation: always take the ball on the safe side, always check over your shoulder. You'll only get that if you're practising every day."

Paul McMullan, 11, was meant to go to secondary school at St Modan's High in Stirling. But then he was chosen to join Graeme High's football academy.

Paul is a member of Celtic's under-12s team. He is passionate about football and this is demonstrated, he says, by the fact that he has astro turf in his back garden: "Even if it's pouring, you can go outside and practise."

He credits the academy with already strengthening his weak foot - his left. But he admits it was difficult to part with his friends from primary.

Craig Sibbald, 12, feels the same. He was due to start at Falkirk High but instead came to Graeme High to be part of the football academy.

"My best pal is saying it's rubbish at the other school without me," says Craig. "I feel the same way about him."

Craig plays with Falkirk Pro Youth at Stirling University. He has been out injured for seven weeks, however, and today is sitting on the sidelines. He is suffering from sever's disease. "When the muscle grows too fast for the bones," he explains.

This is, Mr Mackintosh admits, an "over-use injury. For sporting youngsters it's not that uncommon," he says.

It has been "terrible" not being able to play, says Craig. But he was looking forward to the Scotland match against Italy last Saturday. Although we did not win, such a positive outlook bodes well for his recovery - and the future of Scottish football.

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