I have been following a local grassroots team called St. Mirren Youth Football Club for a few years now. It all happened by chance really, as a friend of mine was a coach at the club and he said that I should speak to a man called Frank Sweeney.
Frank was an inspirational guy, passionate about his club and about grassroots football.
We sat for a good couple of hours, talking about the beautiful game and what needed to be done to help it at grassroots level. Frank told me his story.
“When I joined the club, within a year or two I was the secretary and one of the things that was always brought up at meetings was that we have to get the kids in earlier and this club are doing that.
“I had a vision that the club should be growing and bringing kids in younger, because we used to start at Under 13’s. About seven years ago, when I was still running my Under 21’s, I started it myself as no one else wanted to do it.
“I started an Under 10’s team and an Under 11’s, which I hoped would go on to be an Under 12’s, but after a couple of years we decided that this was not working and we would start an extra one. Since then I have got them down to Mini Kickers, and that is between the ages of 5-7.
“It has been a lot of work, but seeing the kids come on and progress all the way through, to hand them on to other coaches and then you see them maybe three or four games later and they are bigger and stronger players and maybe they are playing for the region or someone like that, it does give you a certain amount of satisfaction.”
From that night on I knew that I had to do something to help these guys, no matter how minor it proved to be. I was pleased to find a way to help.
I started writing a blog on them, and had some grassroots articles published as the guys started to grow as a team and as human beings.
A special bond grew between Iain, Will and I, and we attended junior matches and other games, including an invite down to Stockport County FC, which was because of a guy called Phil Brennan.
As the boys studied the various tactics and formations, I would be watching the games, with each of us taking something from each match we attended.
Other members of the club Frank, Stephen and Joe, then became good friends too, as they saw I was doing my best to help them.
Iain and Will asked me to speak at their Player of the Year night last season, and just recently the club invited me down to the first St. Mirren Youth Football Club Sportsman’s Dinner at the Normandy hotel.
I knew just how much work had gone into organising this event. I also know what the money the club raised on the night will mean to them in the very near future.
The evening was filled with top class entertainment provided by Peter Martin and Chick Young, and there were also some legends from the St. Mirren teams over the years, Tony Fitzpatrick, Norrie McWhirter, Campbell Money, John Hillcoat, Barry Lavety and former Rangers defender Jim Denny.
On top of this were businessmen and other friends of the club including Eddie Devine and a man who was there at the very start of the club’s foundation, Val McMaster.
Perhaps one of the highlights of the night was a heartfelt speech by Tony Fitzpatrick, the patron of this club, who talked about what it’s meant to him to watch the club grow and grow over the years.
When Tony became involved with this club, he had a vision which was way ahead of its time. He was creating and developing St. Mirren Football Club Boys Club in 1998, and his passion for the game is still as strong as ever, as anyone who listened to his speech on the night will tell you.
I spent a lot of time talking to the guys at the club about what’s gone wrong at grass roots level in this country, and we all agree that the professional game tends to leave grassroots football behind until someone brings it up in conversation or Sky Sports, who do a feature on it and then, for a while, everyone jumps on the good old grassroots bandwagon again before it’s forgotten once more. There needs to be a more structured approach to it.
At this club, they realise this. This football club has a dozen playing squads, including two girls’ squads, with combined numbers approaching 300 members, which is amazing, but this costs money and the club are finding it very difficult to manage.
On the park, the coaches like Iain MacMillan, Will Devlin and others are trying to do their part, along with the players, but their own jobs would be impossible without the efforts of the behind the scenes guys like Frank Sweeney, Stephen Mann and Joe McDonagh, who are all doing their bit, putting in an almost unbelievable amount of work to give everyone at the club what they need.
The event last month was not only to raise much needed funds for the club but also to launch their new home and away kits for next season. Special thanks go to Pro Kit Scotland for making the strips which had the Normandy Hotel on the front for this special occasion.
Stripped down to it, the aim of this club is simple; they want all their kids wearing the same kit for their club and they want the passion and identity of St. Mirren Youth Football Club to shine through, now and in the future.
If you look at the costs of running a grassroots football club then you will see the difficulties faced by each and every one of these guys as they try and keep things going. Remember too, these coaches, chairmen and club secretaries are all volunteers, they are doing this for the love of football and the love of their clubs.
The breakdown of what it costs to run a club like St. Mirren Youth Football Club is actually quite frightening.
If you think of 300 folk alone requiring sweat tops, home kits, away kits, rain jackets, bench jackets, track suits, training kits the total comes to £43,500 and that doesn’t include training facilities, pitch hire, referee’s fees, laundry, first aid, footballs, bibs, league fees, association fees, registration fees. It is actually breathtaking looking at these costs.
The guys at the club had to do something, and they hope that the money raised on this excellent night and others will help them achieve their goals.
To help, they had a number of fantastic auction items which included the following framed and signed shirts
Real Madrid 2013/14
Manchester United 2012/13 Sir Alex’s last year in charge
Aberdeen 2014 League Cup winners with Jamie Langfield’s gloves
St. Mirren strip and ball signed by the legends on the night
As well as a silent auction this included
Barcelona Champions League winner’s 2009 box set
Marseille Ligue 1 box set
Rangers SPFL League 1 Champions 2013/14 framed and signed shirt
You can see how much effort went into making this a success and it was a fantastic night but the club cannot go it alone and dig deep every time.
Surely the powers that be, or the club along the road, or someone with a heart and a large wallet, can see that these guys are doing a fantastic job but they do need a helping hand!
They won’t beg, but what they will do is what they have done for years and years. They will continue to grow stronger and stronger till eventually someone says, “I want a piece of the action”, and actually gives these guys the funds to get it done right.
This club had young Stephen McGinn come through the ranks. He went on to play for Watford, Shrewsbury and Sheffield United as well as representing his country at Under 19/21 level, and that is a credit to the club and the coaches at St Mirren Youth Football Club for unearthing this gem of a player. Through time, no doubt there will be more to come.
I keep hearing about this One National Plan for grassroots football, this one vision, with these six main objectives.
1 To increase participation
2 To create an attractive modern game
3 To improve coach education and development
4 To create a vibrant volunteer workforce
5 To develop club and school football
6 To produce more talented young players
Surely, it would make better sense to plough investment and money through to clubs across the board and we would have better parks, better players and better coaches? Then there might actually be a chance of attracting more players on to the pitches, instead of playing football on their Xboxes or other gadgets?
Yes, the SFA should be given credit for what they are trying to do and the recent showing from Scotland’s teams at all levels is proof that we are going in the right direction.
But clubs like St. Mirren Youth Football Club are standing tall as they aim to provide the best future they possibly can with what resources they have, and anyone who attended the Sportsman’s dinner will tell you just what this club means to so many people.
The speech Tony Fitzpatrick made on the night, not only touched many people with its honesty and passion, but it affected some people so much that many of those who actually bid for items and won them gave them back to the club so they could make even more money for the kids. These are the kind of people who attended this event, and that’s what football means to them.
St. Mirren Youth Football Club is a special club, with special people on and off the pitch, all of whom deserve a special mention for a fantastic night, with everyone trying to do the best.
It was an honour and a privilege to attendance such a fantastic night for a grassroots football club. Not only have they had success with this fantastic night of fund raising, but they have also done their jobs on the park and pushed right till the end for the title, finishing second, which is by no means a disgrace. For a club this size it’s a triumph.
It shows you the potential of the club, and where they want to go in the future.
The players have played football in the right way right throughout. Their philosophy, is simple; to play football in the right manner and enjoy yourself. That is what the game is all about.
For me, it is a pleasure, and a source of pride, to have been able to see this club go from strength to strength, and I am sure it won’t be long before we hear more news from my favourite grassroots football team. These guys do not stay quiet or sit still for too long, and it is about time a few more folk knew about them.
From where I’m standing, the future is bright. The future is Black and White!
(Sean Thomas Graham is the newest member of the On Fields of Green team. He has written for a number of Scottish football publications, and is a features writer and senior reviewer for Amped Up Scotland magazine. Remember, On Fields of Green needs your support if we’re to grow. You can make a donation at the link, which is either at the top of the page or the bottom, depending on the smart gadget you’re using! Everyone who does so will get something back … we’re working on it at the moment!)
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