Sean Graham

The importance of grassroots football cannot be highlighted enough in the modern game.

I have always been interested in the gamel at all levels, so when a friend of mine invited me to come along to a training session to speak with a few of the coaches at St. Mirren YFC it helped me to understand just how much hard work goes into running or coaching at a club.

After speaking to Frank Sweeney, the club secretary of St. Mirren, and Iain MacMillan and Will Devlin, two coaches brought in this season to head up their new Under-15 team, I began to see where it all starts for most young players at boys’ club level, where they aim to impress hoping to catch the eye of pro-youth scouts. It is these clubs where they learn their trade at a young age and which play an important part in their development.

Upon my arrival I was keen to hear the views of Frank Sweeney, Iain MacMillan and Will Devlin, and listen to them outline their aims for their team, what they hope to achieve in terms of player development and want to bring to the overall set-up, as well as their views on the youth scene in Scotland.

Sweeney had served his time with a couple of other clubs before ending up at St.Mirren YFC and it was while he was in charge of Williamsburgh United that he was noticed and offered the chance to come to then-St.Mirren FC/BC. Sweeney had a vision, but before his vision could happen his club had a change of name from St.Mirren FC/BC to St.Mirren YFC.

Frank Sweeney (FS): "We changed the name at the beginning of the season. We used to be St. Mirren’s official boys club, hence the FC/BC, but with the advent of pro-youth, it meant that you can no longer be involved with a professional club and with the pro-youth, so there was no real need for a boys club and we decided to make a clean break with our own badge.”

We called ourselves St.Mirren YFC – Youth Football Club because as you see from the girls outside we are not just a boys club – it has been my aim to have a girls football team as well. There are girls dotted throughout this club, but what we don’t have is a girls team from the age of 12. We are hopeful though that at the end of the season that can change.”

“When I joined the club, within a year or two I was its secretary and one of the things that was always brought up at meetings was that we have to get the kids in earlier.”

“We used to start at Under-13s, but we really had to start from scratch as it is getting harder and harder with some of the kids already being with a team when they are younger. So about seven years ago when I was still running my Under-21s I began setting up teams myself as no one else wanted to do it.”

“I started with Under-11s and Under-10s, but after a couple of years we decided that this was not working and that we would need additional teams. So now after seven years I have got them down to mini kickers – which means that we have our 5-to-7-year-olds playing in seven-a-side which then leads to eleven-a-side games, so there is a pathway for everybody to go all the way through the club without having to leave it for any reason other than to try somewhere else.”

“We make the kids feel wanted and you see them around the club with their little kits on and with smiles on their little faces. But it is not just the kids who are happy, the parents know their children are at a well run club which has the SFA Quality Mark.”

Many folks will be wondering what that is?

FS: “It is an accreditation that you get from the SFA and really is what it says – a mark of quality about your club.”

“We only had seven or eight teams when I first came and now we have 14, maybe 15. It has been a lot of work, but seeing the kids progress all the way through from when I have started at the club, hand them on to other coaches and then you see them some years later, bigger and stronger players, it does give you a certain amount of satisfaction.”

“On grassroots football, I think they are starting to get it right. It has been a long hard slog, as in Scottish football there are a lot of factions, the SPL, the SFA [Scottish Football Association], and the SYFA [Scottish Youth Football Association].”

“Over the years now there have been a lot of changes, a lot of associations have joined with SYFA or the Welfare [Football Association] and it has become more mainstream and has been controlled a lot better. Just recently the SFA have been trying to get a player pathway sorted between certain age groups.”

“The basic thing that we are crying out for is decent training facilities, indoor and outdoor. There are not enough astrograss parks with lights, and we need more [indoor] facilities like [the] Toryglen [Football Centre near Glasgow].”

“I have had to split my mini kickers in two groups – just because there are so many of them and all I have got is two wee halls. It is not even a games hall, it is two wee halls.”

Have things changed since the days of screaming dads at the side of the pitch?

FS: “I think development overtakes winning! Winning at a young age is not important, it is coming, playing, doing the right things and enjoying yourself. If you are not enjoying yourself then don’t come, go and find something that suits you.”

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice when you win, but it is not the be-all and end-all! I would prefer to see my team going out there playing in the right manner and getting beat narrowly than going out there and hammering a team and they were all over the place.”

“It is a passion game; kids have got to be comfortable on the ball. You see the Europeans and they are all comfortable on the ball, they don’t just belt the ball up the park. You have got to be able to pass it. If you cannot pass a ball then when you get to the age of Under-13s you will get found out. “

“I would like to think that the philosophy right throughout the club is get the ball down and play football. We don’t play route one football!  Even if we are in trouble or losing the game, it is best if you can build from the back.“

How about receiving funding from the Lottery grand scheme Awards for All?

FS: “Some local councils have money put aside for good causes, be it sport or something else. We have had Awards for All for quite a lot of our teams and Sports Match is another good one. Like the local authorities they make money available, it is just a matter of qualifying for it.“

“A few years ago we heard that Jenny’s Well [a park close to the centre of Paisley] was up for grabs and it took me the best part of two years to secure it. We have had it now for six or seven years and it has been great. The council maintain the park mostly, but there comes a time of the year when they stop cutting, and we have bought a tractor and do a lot of the work ourselves, but it all costs money.”

“The SFA are trying to get us some portacabins to replace the ones that we are currently hiring and that costs us over £50 a month. They have to be metal containers so that no one can burn them down. But we have not really had any luck and they are trying their best, if anything becomes available, we will be first in line to get it. It would be good if you could get something at a decent price, but everybody is looking to make money! “

Recruiting the right kind of coaches is vital for the club’s and the children’s development and through advertisement Frank Sweeney was able to bring in two enthusiastic young coaches to run the Under-15s side. Both Iain MacMillan and Will Devlin have already had rave reviews from Sweeney for their efforts, but what were their first impressions of the club?

Iain MacMillan (IM): “I was quite impressed after my first meeting with Frank [Sweeney] and Stephen [Mann; St. Mirren’s Club Chairman]. The two guys showed a real passion for what they wanted to achieve for the club. It is a family set-up and everybody is encouraging and supportive from all the coaching staff to the parents of the players. Everybody commits a lot of their spare time and hard work with the sole aim of giving kids and youths the opportunity to play football and be able to develop them as best they can.”  
Will Devlin (WD): “A few things that impressed me about Stephen and Frank were their passion, commitment and determination to help the development of the kids’ progress and help the community as a whole.”
“Frank and Stephen allowed myself and Iain to run the Under-15s which enabled us to express our ideas of how we wanted our squad of players to play.”

How did you both become involved with St. Mirren YFC?
IM:  “During Easter last year the club were advertising for coaches for the start of this current season. They were looking for new coaches to take charge of different age levels. I applied to the advert and was asked to come down to training one night, where Frank and Stephen gave me a talk about the club.”
WD: “I happened to come across an advertisement in the Evening Times with St Mirren looking for volunteer coaches. I applied to the advert and received a call to meet both Frank and Steven at Linwood Sports Centre for a meeting.”

What made you decide to take up football coaching?

IM:  “I happened to bump into my mate I grew up with at Christmas 2006.  We lost touch when I moved house six years earlier. We caught up and he is currently a coach and said I would really enjoy it and I should go and do my badges. At first, I thought he was joking, but he was serious. He knew how interested I was in football from our younger days when we were growing up. I thought about it for a few days and then I went and did the three levels that year
“From an early age I was keen on football. During and after school football was the only sport the majority of us played. As a pupil I did have aspirations like many kids to become a football player but unfortunately, due to my heart condition I couldn’t play competitive football.”

WD: “After a stint in Australia visiting my uncle and seeing the enjoyment that he had from coaching kids, I decided I wanted to help children and help them progress to another level. So I enrolled in the early touches badge in Australia, got involved in a few coaching sessions and really enjoyed it. I have now gained up to level 3 of the youth and hope to gain my level 4 next year.”

“I have always been a keen football player. I played for Glasgow schools and had trials for the Scotland schools national side. In 2000 I was asked down to Sunderland for six weeks and like every kid I had dreams of making a career out of football, although I played for Raith Rovers and was lucky to have been around a professional set-up in order to see what it needs to get to that level.”

Both of you have only recently started out coaching. How are you enjoying it?
IM: “I’m really enjoying it. There are massive amounts to learn and hopefully this opportunity given to me by the club will allow me to try and become a decent coach.”
“At the moment, especially at this level and just starting out, the best way is to learn off experienced people. By that I mean attending coaching events and workshops supplied mainly by the SFA, and seeking advice from guys who are either in the game or have been. We have coaches at the club and there are a lot of people you can seek advice from as well. At this moment, you’re learning as you go along, getting advice from the people can only make you become better. I would hope that we are trying to teach the players the right things and good habits of the game. But I still have massive amounts to learn.”

WD: “I am really glad I got involved in coaching, although there is loads to learn and also a lot to take in as you are dealing with different things i.e. players, parents, finance, training and training facilities. All of these things will give me good grounding to become the coach that I aspire to be.”
“With this being my first coaching role any bits of information from St. Mirren’s coaches and staff or the SFA coaches are taken on board as any information from experienced coaches is very much appreciated.”

What do you both look for in a player?

IM: “Correct attitude and willingness to learn. I would never turn anybody down if they wanted to play football. Especially at this level you should encourage the younger kids to play more football. If they are interested and willing to learn, then we as coaches need to develop that as best we can.”  
  “My job as a coach is to develop kids, never reject kids from playing football and coming to enjoy themselves. But to develop them, the kids themselves have got to have the correct attitude and be willing to learn.”
“By correct attitude, I mean that the kids have got to go and practice after training, rest at the right times, eat the right food, listen to the coaches. What you will find is that the kids who do this go and make it to a decent level in the game. Our job is to get the kids who have got these attitudes to achieve these things and to make kids come and enjoy their training session.”

What is the aim for St. Mirren YFC in general?

IM: “As Frank [Sweeney] has probably alluded to, the main aim for the club on the whole is to improve and develop players and give them the opportunity to play football. At the end of the day if we can help any of these guys try and establish themselves to get noticed, then we have done our job. That is the aim for the club as a whole.”
“We are here to try and get these guys interested in football and hopefully be able to get them to a good standard to be able to go on and develop further.”

“We hope to have a team that carry out the basic requirements necessary to be successful in football. Players need to be comfortable on the ball. If you look at youth players abroad today and you see their passing and control of the ball, it’s on a different level from us. Why? Because they get taught the basics at an early age.”
“It’s the basics that let us down in this country. At the moment we are teaching guys in our team basic passing or controlling drills that maybe they should have been taught at an earlier age. We are trying to develop and teach the guys good habits and hopefully when they play they take what they have been taught into the game.”

WD:  “The aim for the club is to develop footballers and mould them into decent players that makes senior clubs want to come and take them. My job is to develop these kids and get them to a higher standard.”
“That is the emphasis of the whole club: The more players come through the club and move up to senior clubs, the better it is for the club.”

“Trying to get our guys to make the simple pass and always be on the move and carrying out the basic requirements to be a footballer. Kids in this country are so far behind kids abroad when it comes to the basic passing, dribbling and control drills. The emphasis abroad is to be in control of the ball and to feel comfortable; we are trying to implement that to our age group. Also kids in Scotland take the lazy option – by that I mean they make a pass and admire it whereas their first thought should be to get into a space to receive the ball again. We are trying to implement that into our squad.”
“As Iain has said the basics are what are letting the country down. Kids should be taught the basics from an early age.”

What do you both think is missing in grassroots football today and what can be done to help?

IM: “More money should be made available and more pitches and facilities to play in winter. There aren’t enough considering the many boys club leagues out there. I don’t think enough pro clubs actually take an interest on the hard work that gets done by many people at this level. The talent is out there, but I don’t think it’s scouted properly.”

“If they could open more facilities around Scotland like the regional football centre at Toryglen then you would see a major difference in attracting youngsters to play.”

“As a youth you get frustrated and disappointed when your match is called off due to the weather and there comes a stage when you become less and less interested and eventually take up other interests and fall away from the game the older you get.”
WD: “I feel that there is a severe lack of money available to not just senior clubs but to boys clubs as well. I feel that the government could give an amount to the SFA to spread between senior clubs at youth level and also to boys club because – let’s face it – a boys club is the start of the football cycle. That’s where your [James] McFaddens and [Darren] Fletchers started their football careers, and unless there is some way of helping boys clubs then there will be a time where there will be no boys clubs around because kids are away playing their game consoles, and it will set Scotland further back in development.”
“There are thousands of boys out there who would have made the grade and helped Scotland be a better football nation, but due to lack of finance which results in senior clubs neglecting their youth policy these kids have fallen by the wayside.”

“Firstly, everyone knows that there is such a lack of facilities in Scotland. Once the government give money to build more facilities like the one at Toryglen where there are loads of third generation parks and indoor facilities then kids will not lose interest in playing. In Scotland with the way the winter and the weather are, going to third generation parks and indoor facilities would be more beneficial than a grass pitch during winter and knowing by the middle of the week that the game is likely to be off.”
“Secondly is the standards of coaching. My personal opinion is that there are coaches out there who are more interested in themselves than the development of their squad. By that I mean the coaches are more interested in winning trophies and tournaments rather than developing the kids. This is also holding the children’s development back. That’s where I see the SFA possibly coming in and assessing coaches at different times of the year. It’s all too easy for a coach to turn up to a seminar run by the SFA and get involved in the drills, but not take them in. They get their certificate, but then go to their club and their first thought is to run the kids up and down hills. Where is the benefit in that?”
“Thirdly I think from certain age levels there should be an emphasis on just pure development and not on winning. Kids should learn how to pass, receive, control, head a ball and feel comfortable when in possession. I think kids are under pressure to punt the ball as far as possible to the opposition’s goal and hem the opposition into their area. Once kids get to a certain age range they are struggling with the basic skills of football”.

What about the current state of the game? Do you think that more could be done at grassroots level to help aid in the skill and youngsters of today?
IM: “Definitely, I think you got to have a different outlook on how you rear players from an early age. Everybody has to be pulling in the same direction. You see things happening that make you think.”
“Kids under the age of 15 should not be thinking about winning. At an early age you’ve got to encourage the kids and get them interested. Make it fun and enjoyable. They should be learning the basics of the game like passing, controlling etc. Time should be spent improving their skills on the ball and making sure they are comfortable. We don’t do this enough at this level. Everybody is too keen on winning at all costs.”

“There has got be a structured outlook to allow players to prosper and give them the best opportunity. It will be interesting over the next few years to see how the new SFA development plan takes shape. It’s long overdue and hopefully now we will start to see a change in attitude in the way kids and youths are taught the game today.”
WD: “Absolutely. I think everyone knows it’s time for change. Including at the very top as well. My personal feeling on how to structure and make the game better is that kids should be playing four-a-side from an early age, then moving onto five- or six-a-sides with indoor facilities like Toryglen, gradually moving up to seven- to eight-a-side during which the emphasis is technique development, and eventually moving onto eleven-a-sides when they reach the ages of 14 to 15.”

“By doing this it enables kids to get more touches on the ball and when they reach 14-15 then that’s when structuring them on where to play and positions becomes more important along with their continued technique development.”

“I also feel that in the school curriculum there should be time where coaches come from SFA and take classes for a few hours of training a day. Most schools have astro pitches or access to games halls, so kids could be involved in coaching sessions during the school curriculum. The more kids play, the more they will become technically better. It all comes down to getting facilities and finding the right coach who is willing to develop kids.”
“One day I was watching a game go ahead on an eleven-a-side park with the full size goals between an Under-9 team. The result was 20-0. As soon as the opposition got into the box they were putting the ball to either side of the goalkeeper and it was a goal. Any shot on target was in. That’s why I feel we should revert to small sided games and get kids playing and enjoying themselves.”
“Anywhere abroad you’ll find that there are kids playing four- or five-a-side games gaining touches, being comfortable. The new development plan being brought out by the SFA this year should be interesting and hopefully various continental youth set-ups – in Spain and Holland especially – were investigated and incorporated into this plan.” 

I hope that this insight into a club like St.Mirren YFC helps readers to understand what goes into the running of a club like this. No doubt it will be the same for clubs up and down Scotland: Not enough decent indoor and outdoor training facilities, not enough parks with lights and the need for more facilities during bad weather.

Frank Sweeney and the club have big plans, but in order to achieve their goals they need help. The club are looking to regenerate and develop football pitches and facilities to enable them to have better surroundings to develop their talented young players, and are trying to look into fundraising.

Young footballers of today are the stars of tomorrow, such as Stephen McGinn who has come through this set-up to now gone on and play for Watford. Given time and energy the club could unearth more gems like him.

Anyone interested in finding out more about the club can go to


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