Saturday, December 22, 2007

'To most people it's Trainspotting territory, but to me it's where I grew up'

Gordon Strachan says playing football in Muirhouse made him what he is

Cletic manager and Muirhouse boy, Gordon Strachan. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

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View Gallery"'That's me, streetwise and sarcastic. I make no apologies for that'"GORDON Strachan is unaware that, as he poses for the camera, the navy jumper and tartan scarf he's wearing evoke warm memories of his time as a Scotland international. Back in the area of Edinburgh where he grew up, the Celtic manager is indulging in his own trip down memory lane.
The show reel of matches running through his mind are not those on foreign soil or even key clashes played in front of thousands of buoyant fans, though. "After all the professional games I have played, probably over 1,000 games, I can still remember the games I played around here as a lad," he smiles, "still smell the grass off my jeans. I've still got that. I can remember specific games, remember finishing and sitting down and laughing and joking with my mates and then starting another game. They are absolutely fantastic memories. It sounds strange but even now those are the games I remember fondly."

Nostalgia is a powerful motivating force and that camaraderie and those carefree hours were primary reasons behind his decision to lend support to the Spartans Community Football Academy. Patron of the project since he was approached almost three years ago, he was in Muirhouse this week to see the progress made on the new £3.3m facility. Work is already under way, with a completion date of July 2008 pencilled into next year's diary, but he hopes that will only signal the beginning of the real work. "It's not just about making the kids good players, it's about making them good people."

In an area he stoically concedes is regarded as "Irvine Welsh country – to most people it's Trainspotting territory," he says, "but to me it's where I grew up and played with my mates. I did have a gang but we didn't fight anyone, we just played football all the time. We laughed and joked so I want people to come to the academy and be part of a gang and channel their energy that way."

While ambitious East of Scotland League side Spartans are exploring all avenues in a bid to gain entry to the Scottish Football League and build on their Scottish Cup notoriety, the academy is designed to cater for more than just the elite players in the area. They want to make a difference to young lives. That is where Strachan shares their vision. Once completed, the complex, which includes a mix of synthetic and grass, football and multi-sport pitches, an all-weather basketball court, eight changing rooms, a community club room, learning centre and physiotherapy centre, is expected to attract over 1,500 users per week and, although the football club hopes it will allow them to groom some talented players, for Strachan it is simply about opportunities.

"I love football but I also know that, as well as my parents, it was football that taught me to respect people if they are respectful to me. I have decent manners and I have never been in trouble with the police and neither have my mates so it was football as well as my parents that gave me the chance. Some people are not lucky enough to have those kind of parents and that's where the football suddenly becomes very important.

"Families split up and the mum and dad have problems and kids learn bad habits or they could come from a decent home, but if they mix with the wrong people kids can learn bad habits from them so the idea is to bring them in here and teach them the beauty of teamwork and the importance of discipline for yourself and your team whatever sport you are playing.

"It's primarily football here but it's about respect for everything, property, your team-mates, the opposition and authority. We want youngsters to learn respect for others and for themselves. And if we get a couple of nuggets then great but for me it's about social as well as football skills."

A tanner ba' player who used streets as pitches, pavements as boundaries and good old jumpers for goalposts, Strachan recognises those days are disappearing. Too many cars, less and less open parkland and more obvious social demons waiting to accost youngsters.

"Mums and dads don't really enjoy their kids being out because there are things out there that were never really there when I was a kid. Things like drugs and all the real violence. I heard a statistic that said there is somebody slashed every six hours in Glasgow. I don't know what that statistic is here but we have our own problems so this is an environment which will be safer for the kids.

"I believe everybody has at least one talent. It might not be a sports talent but if you come into a group you will find your talent in something, it doesn't matter who you are."

Growing up on the streets of Muirhouse, Strachan identified his gift early on. He says pretending otherwise would be lying but he adds that. in an area where "you always had to be on the front foot, ready to spot trouble". he never took anything for granted.

In his gang, he knew he was one of the first picks and when up against rivals from other areas, he earned the respect which allowed him safe passage through the neighbouring territories. "Because of the football we all knew each other so I could wander into Drylaw without feeling threatened. You respected each other as footballers and you bumped into each other all the time so there wasn't the ignorance. Football broke down those barriers."

And if there was the odd spot of trouble, sport again helped. The camaraderie and group environment was the ideal forum for honing his one-line ripostes, the training and playing providing the insurance policy of fitness and pace should a quick getaway be necessary.

"There is a lot you can do with an academy like this. Give kids the right role models, teach them values and I believe that every community could benefit. I believe every community should have something like this. Is there enough money out there? I'm sure there's money out there. Look at crime and the social problems we have, well we didn't have the time for that, we were too busy playing football and something like this, giving the kids another way to channel their energy.

"When I grew up in this area, I didn't realise it was different from anywhere else. There's a song (by the band James] that says 'if I hadn't seen such riches I could live with being poor' and it's true but we shouldn't have to. Not when we could have something like this."

Donning a hard hat to survey the building site, it is a switch from the metaphoric protection he normal swathes himself in as an Old Firm manager. It's a highly pressured job and Strachan admits that even a return to his roots, while conjuring up wonderful memories, does not completely alleviate the tension.

The only time he relaxes, he claims, is when in his own house, his wife Lesley beside him and the rest of the world locked outside. "That might sound yucky and a bit sad and I know I shouldn't always feel like that I'm always on the front foot looking for things that are not there, but I have to be ready for it. That's me, streetwise and sarcastic. I make no apologies for that. So long as I'm respectful that's what I learned when I was here."

That and the ability to build friendships, which may not have stood the test of time but which still give him a mental escape from his current career pressures. "I remember my gang. We just used to laugh all the time. That group was magnificent and that's what football, what all team sports give you. The fun and togetherness. Unfortunately we all went our own way but I still remember all the names and all the laughs and joking I did with them.

"I moved about so much so we did lose touch but, even now, after all these years, I still remember some of their birthdays and if you asked me the birthdays of my aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews I wouldn't know but my mates' birthdays and nicknames and where we used to play and in what positions, I know that."

It is what he wants for the youngsters who will pass through the Spartans Community Football Academy. He wants them to learn values and value what they learn.

And he will be on hand as a role model, making guest coaching appearances. "I think I would like to do that and have fun seeing them getting something from this place."

Because in Muirhouse, away from the pressures and as he relives his youth, this is where football is still fun for Strachan.