Albert Einstein once said, “in the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” Rarely, if ever, has crisis been so prominent in most of our lifetimes. Grassroots football in Scotland as we know it has come to a standstill. However, despite pitches sitting empty across the country, is there an opportunity we can cling onto with both hands? We believe there are several.

Return of the ‘playing at home’ culture
Nowadays, young people have a wide variety of options when it comes to deciding how they spend their free time. Technology means games consoles, smartphones and many other gadgets with little exercise value have risen to prominence. The previous generations tell their children and grandchildren that when they were younger all they did is play football in the street and Scotland regularly qualified for the World Cup. It usually gets a wry smile before being laughed off as an alien concept.

Maybe, just maybe, we could we finally be turning a corner and bringing back the culture of bygone days. In a recent poll on the YFS Facebook page, 30% of a sample group containing several thousand, stated that they had touched a ball more in a typical week during lockdown than they did during ‘football normality’.

As the heart yearns for the beautiful game, young players across Scotland have been playing in every way they can. Back gardens, quiet streets, public parks and even (sorry parents) inside the house. Shooting for hours on end, tackling fun skills challenge, working hard on fitness, developing their weak foot… the list is endless. Whilst it has not replaced the love for playing the game or even training with team-mates, it’s fair to say that young people have both thoroughly enjoyed it and realised it can make quite a different to their ability level in a short space of time.

We have even heard from a number of players taking part in Keep Scotland Active, that friends who did not previously play football have contacted them about joining a team.

The big question is can we, as a nation, keep up this level of home play when training and games return? If we can, an exciting sporting future could be on the cards for the current generation.

The heart of the local community
Nowadays, the word ‘community’ sits within many club names. Football clubs understand the value of community, and we would like to think most people within the respective communities value them. However, the pandemic has brought together communities across Scotland in a way we have not witnessed before.

Whether it is donating to food banks, hand delivering prescriptions to the elderly or just lending an ear to someone who needs, youth clubs have taken it upon themselves to ensure no stone is left unturned.

We are certain this has not gone unnoticed and when football returns, there should be tens of thousands of people who knew little about their local youth football club previously, but now find themselves with a new affinity. When it is safe to do so, we hope to see new levels of support for these clubs both on and off the pitch.

The realisation that digital tools and physical activity can go hand in hand
Zoom Zoom Zoom. A couple of months ago, you would have thought we were referring to a racing car rather than a daily routine. It did not take long for the football community to realise they could gather a whole squad or academy class of players and have them all partake in the same coaching session. You can see how they’re getting on and even give them live feedback.

Clubs have used it as a way of keeping their squad busy and active, whereas some coaching academies have really taken it to the next level with incredible training programmes.

We all cannot wait to return to our normal training grounds, however hopefully we can take the best bits of video coaching and keep them alive. Many teams have started regular fitness sessions ranging from strength and conditioning to aerobics and even yoga. It is tough to find the time for these during the normal season. Facilities are a challenge, as is the time of parents who act as taxi drivers. However, forty-five minutes in the living room, can easily be found by most.

It could also come into play in rural areas. Feedback from academies has been that players from the most remote areas of Scotland have certainly enjoyed integrating with other players their age and accessing high quality coaching without the long commutes. It would be nice to think these opportunities could remain. Similar could be said for goalkeeping and other forms of specialist training.

Sticking together through thick and thin
We have already referred to their wider community impact, but clubs have really excelled when it comes to their own players. Social media can come in for criticism, but it has been a joy to watch teams of all ages and abilities show their strength and unity.

Most of the youth coaches and club officials in Scotland are not paid. Many will have their own challenges during the pandemic, whether it be lack of work, other financial issues or just the chaos of having the whole family’s routines thrown together under one roof. However, they have went to incredible lengths to make sure their ‘second family’ stays intact.

We have seen clubs undertake mammoth group running challenges; participate in community fundraisers; task their players with baking for their parents; host games nights on Zoom with each player taking a turn to be quizmaster; even take their end of season awards and presentation evenings online.

There is widespread concern that when football returns, the years of hard work to keep participation numbers high will have been undone. We are not so sure. We think many teams will be returning to action with a strong bond than ever.

The quest for knowledge
Coach education and development has always been a double-edged sword. Everyone in the coaching community knows the importance of it. However, where do we find the time? We take our team on matchdays, we get our first aid qualifications, we take training and we have club social events. For many coaches, you can multiply that by multiple teams. So how do we fit in a few courses a year on top of that?

Coach education has gone digital and the results have been significant. The Scottish FA courses have been made available and lapped up in large numbers. Many coaches who might not have managed to build on their CPD this year have grasped the opportunity with both hands. It has not stopped there. Clubs and coaching academies have put on webinars and other independent events, giving grassroots coaches live access to presenters they would have usually only seen on TV or read in a book.

We are convinced that our coaching community will return to the training arena empowered with knowledge to put into practice. And we hope the river of digital education will continue flowing.

Uniting our own community
We love football, but it really does bring out the competitive streak in all of us. We can keep our cards close to our chest at times and healthy rivalries can become a bit heated. It applies to teams, clubs, coaching academies and other independent product and service providers.

Sometimes we forget to stop and remember that we are all actually pretty much the same. We love our players, we are passionate about making our youth team or organisation the best it can be and most of us love supporting a ‘big team’ and taking our seat in the stands.

Right now, we are definitely in the same boat. We just cannot wait for football to return and are doing all we can to keep the candle burning. Yes, there has been the occasional health related argument, which is inevitable. However, in generally we have been amazed by how much friendship has been evident. We are collaborating, sharing ideas, giving each other a pat on the back. Here is hoping, some of these new relationships will blossom for the good of the game.

We really do love it
Last, but certainly not least, is the realisation that ‘for the love of the game’ really rings true. Whether it is playing on the pitch or watching from the sideline, the euphoria of scoring a goal or just having a laugh with our mates… we really miss it. Grassroots football will never be taken for granted again.

Yes, there will be challenges to face and hurdles to overcome, but mark our words, we will come back stronger. Stay safe and keep doing what you are doing.