When Gartcairn Football Academy was founded in 2007 there were barely enough players for one team. Fast forward 11 years and chairman Robert McCallum’s biggest problem is finding enough pitches to cope with the demand.
After the Airdrie academy was started, with the help of a £8,000 equipment grant from sportscotland, it took a few months to attract enough players for one age group.
But when Gartcairn’s ethos - those who wish to play, shall play - took hold, the academy quickly flourished, following the principles of the Scottish FA’s quality mark programme and with additional support from sportscotland and the Big Lottery Fund.
Now it boasts 434 players and 84 coaches with 21 teams across adult, youth and girls sections.
The club’s progress is such that Robert’s main concern is finding enough facilities to house all the players and volunteer coaches who continually turn out for the love of the game, but he insists he wouldn’t have it any other way.
He said: “The numbers are continually giving me headaches with trying to find parks and space for them. But I keep saying to the coaches ‘keep it coming’. That’s my problem and it is a good problem to have.
“Our junior manager said to me the other day ‘do you ever just take a minute to say wow this is amazing?’. And I say ‘no, I don’t have time’. There’s always a coach that needs a PVG or a course, or a team that needs a new hall or a park. It’s just constant. It’s amazing.”
The Academy’s philosophy to cater for everyone who wants to play football has seen girls incorporated into most of their boys youth teams and the creation of an autism section in January 2018.
The autism section is aided by Hope For Autism and there are cue cards and blackout tents available to help the players feel comfortable in their surroundings.
There are 22 children registered in the section and Robert says their enthusiasm for the sport is there for all to see and he hopes to see the players in competitive action soon.
He said: “It’s important they are not moved because they need that consistent environment, they’re in a hall and it’s only that team that are in it so they don’t have to deal with coaches from other teams shouting or anything like that.
'Some cracking footballers'
“Those kids are so much fun, there’s some real good characters in there. It’s great, but I won’t lie it is hard work. We have the backing of Hope For Autism who send Nigella out to help with it. We have the cue cards and the blackout tents so if they have a wobble they can go into a safe place.
“And there’s some cracking footballers in that team, it’s just trying to curb their enthusiasm a bit. They’re doing slide tackles on the gym floor and you’re thinking ‘oh no, we’re going to end up with injuries here’.
“It’s great to see how much they enjoy it. We went to an SFA conference recently and they are looking at starting mini festivals or leagues for autistic teams at certain age groups and hopefully that starts because they need something competitive.”
Robert admits having a mix of boys and girls in the same team wasn’t something he gave a second thought, it just seemed like the right thing to do to follow the Academy’s ethos. And it has meant some of the Gartcairn girls splitting their time between boys and girls teams, having the chance to play or train almost every night of the week.
He said: “When we started most of the boys teams had at least one girl playing for them, it’s just always been the case, it wasn’t something we paid much attention to.
“My daughter plays in the 2007s, we have five girls who train with the mixed boys team and also train with our girls teams, then they’ll play with the boys teams on the Saturday and the girls team on the Sunday. My daughter now gets five nights of training every week and playing twice at the weekend. It’s a good mix for them.”