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Youth Football

– in the Scottish Parliament on 2nd June 2015.

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Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-13199, in the name of Chic Brodie, on youth football’s contribution to men’s and women’s football. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises the contribution made by youth football to developing both men’s and women’s football in South Scotland region and across the country; considers that creating the right environment for developing players is important in all levels of youth football, and believes that youth football can not only develop players in a sporting manner but also in terms of teamwork, discipline and drive.

Photo of Chic Brodie Chic Brodie Scottish National Party

It is normal practice in members’ business debates to say that one is delighted, even privileged, to bring the debate to the chamber. Tonight, against the background of the maelstrom of this week’s international criticism of global football management, I am not so determined or indeed delighted. However, I thank Murdo Fraser and James Kelly for supporting the debate. I know of their personal interest in the game and their inherent personal fairness.

In life, we have many dreams, and to achieve a personal desire or aspiration is inspiring. We sit here, if not to make, then certainly in the hope that we will achieve, just one significant change that may affect positively even one person’s life, perhaps that of a child, and to do so is humbling. That is what I hope we will effect tonight—a start to eschewing and stopping the exploitation of children’s dreams and a start to making football a beautiful game again. I say “again” because it has, in this area, turned ugly.

First, I thank those who, for many years, have kept that dream alive and that flame burning. I thank Willie Smith and Scott Robertson of RealGrassroots, who are with us tonight, their consultants and advisers, the fantastic European youth football advisers in FIFPro, and other national professional advisers and consultants whom I have been privileged to meet. I thank also Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, which conducted its recent review of this subject purposefully, professionally and independently.

Behind the great wall of support for football and our total and unwavering faith in our national team, there lies a very dark corner, wherein lies the reason why our ultimate goal and our progress towards it is limited by our inability to produce our inherent national football skills. As young women embrace our national game, that is becoming increasingly important.

In challenging the usual modus operandi of members’ debates, tonight we seek answers and change. Let us start with the cherry picking by some clubs of potentially talented young footballers—children, some as young as six but more generally 10 or 12, who have only one thought and one place on their minds, be it Celtic Park, Ibrox, the Bernabéu, Old Trafford, or even their local professional park—only for them to be cast aside a few years later as not good enough and their dreams turned to nightmares.

There are a few exceptions: the 15 and 16-year-olds with huge ability and skills and, to some, even greater investment potential. Those young people, overenthused, in some cases by their parents, engage in contracts with clubs that are not worth the paper they are written on; in some cases, those contracts, registration forms and now, apparently, commitment letters, do not meet United Kingdom or European legislative standards. When I met our national skills agency to talk about professional apprenticeships in football, I was told that the registration forms for young people in football today were worthless and that the agency was considering its continued financial support. The contracts and registration forms are Exocets, aimed at the dreams of the young and their parents. For example, it cannot be right for an 18-year-old, so contracted, to be denied the ability to play for his university because of an alleged contract that is the basis of challenge.

It is not only the legal basis of those arrangements that we challenge. I have become aware that professional football clubs in Scotland have been contracting and paying young players less than the minimum wage, in contravention of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. As a result of correspondence, I have detailed information from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and HM Revenue and Customs to support that fact. That announcement will have much wider implications elsewhere. To contract a player to a club and pay him £1 a week is in contravention of the 1998 act—as is paying anyone less than the minimum wage—and the contract or registration will not apply. That is a serious but confirmed legal interpretation, which, as I say, has wider implications outside football.

The additional restriction under the Human Rights Act 1998 of personal freedom of movement without appropriate transfer rights is also a major breach of civil rights under European law. Remember that we are talking about children. I lay that primarily at the door of our major football club organisation, with its subservience to the clubs, and its apparent lack of monitoring of those clubs and total disengagement with this Parliament and its organisations. When I asked the Scottish Professional Football League about the minimum wage and its engagement with the consultation that is being prepared by the children’s commissioner, it said in a letter to me dated 29 January that it was “unaware” of the wider consultation. Well, it should have been aware of it.

Data that I received from the Scottish Parliament information centre indicates that the football authority agreed to deliver an integrated and four-year-cycle plan—an investment plan—and, in the course of that, sportscotland invested over the period 2011 to 2015 £5.5 million, including for a network development centre to support the best young grass-roots players. I shall seek an audit trail of that expenditure to determine the return on the investment, although I accept that some of it will be bona fide.

Many questions arise, not least whether we are following the robust guidance of FIFPro, UEFA and the football trade unions and whether we will we now listen to the wise words of the valued children’s commissioner and his report “Improving youth football in Scotland”, which has the commendable headline:

“‘I would like to have control over my life and do what I want to do.’”

Or do we sit back and allow the directors and the agents, to whose actions we shall turn in the future, to treat children as “commodities”, as the commissioner put it in 2011, which are now subject to financial raids from clubs south of the border? An attitudinal change in youth football in Scotland is now required.

Dickensian we are no longer, and children’s rights will be protected. There should be—there will be—no circumstance in which the state or associated bodies should invest resources or finance that violate those rights. Those involved are—I repeat—children, not investments or commodities, and they too have rights. Football in Scotland shall now return to its roots and belong to its fans, our young footballers and our collective dream. If the current administrators of Scottish club football and, by default, Scottish youth football cannot themselves make the required changes to meet those rights, we shall seek to pursue a statutory course and underpin current legislation that does so. We will not wait a further five years to do so.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

As this is a popular debate, I ask members to keep to four-minute speeches, please.

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour

I congratulate Chic Brodie on bringing forward this important motion. Like him, I will start with the issue of football for those aspiring to play in the top bracket. However, I think that the motion also invites us to consider football for a much wider range of young people.

The debate is very timely, given the children’s commissioner’s report in which he rightly emphasises as a central theme that we must take account of young people’s rights when it comes to the contracts that they sign with the big football clubs. That is the main concern, but it is also worth observing that the clubs have perhaps not been very good in general at bringing on young people in terms of realising their potential. Perhaps Hibs—Hibernian Football Club—which is my own club, is an exception to that, because it has done very well in terms of bringing on young people. However, all the top clubs have to listen very carefully to what Chic Brodie and the children’s commissioner are saying about the rights of young people who sign up for them, particularly the right to have control and to be able to leave when they want to. It is one of the commissioner’s recommendations that young people should be able to leave by giving 28 days’ notice.

It is particularly appalling that, after they are 15, some young footballers are stuck with a club and cannot move to another club or, for example, play for their university, as Chic Brodie said. Chic Brodie has highlighted big issues and we have had quite a lot of publicity about them over the weekend from the papers and from the commissioner’s report. I hope that some momentum will build up around the central theme of this debate.

As I said, I also want to consider football for a much wider range of young people, both boys and girls. I will use two examples from my constituency because I am lucky to have two outstanding examples. I will start with Leith Athletic Football Club, which involves about a couple of hundred young people in teams of varying ages, from the early years of primary right up beyond the school-leaving age. In particular, I congratulate the under-21 team, which won its third trophy in a matter of a few weeks only on Saturday.

The club is a splendid example of a large number of people in the local area being supported by a youth football club. The main point that I want to make about that is that the club does a great job but really needs more financial support. There are big challenges for the Scottish Football Association with regard to whether it is going to support youth football, and perhaps there are challenges for the Government, too.

The other example is that of the Spartans Community Football Academy, which is a social enterprise based at Ainslie Park in the Pilton area of my constituency. The academy is the charitable arm of the highly successful Spartans Football Club.

At the top of the club’s website page are the words:

“Live together. Play together. Win together.”

A massive number of young people are given an opportunity to participate in football there and they can stay there for several years. The words “Live together” emphasise the wider aims that the club has, because it wants to strengthen community cohesion—for example, through specific initiatives for ethnic minorities—and to have a positive impact on social targets such as health inequalities, increased employment opportunities and crime reduction. It has been an outstanding example of youth football for the many.

In my final minute, I must talk about girls and women. Girls are involved at Spartans, for example, and we need to do a great deal more to encourage girls to have opportunities in football. One important initiative is that the Scottish Football Association joined UEFA’s women’s football development programme, which is a project to promote role models and ambassadors as a way of encouraging girls to be involved in football. Specifically, members of the Scottish women’s national team were selected as ambassadors, to raise the profile and support of the women’s and girls’ game. Those players attended workshops and then went on school visits and to grass-roots festivals that had been arranged for them.

That is one example of how to increase participation in girls’ and women’s football in Scotland at all levels, but we need a lot more initiatives. Girls must not be deprived of the opportunity. I know that more play than did in the past, but there is a lot more to do and we should not forget that aspect of the topic.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I declare an interest as the chairperson of Hibernian Supporters Limited, a company established for the ultimate ownership of Hibernian Football Club by its fans.

I thank Chic Brodie for bringing this debate to the chamber. It is opportune, but I believe that the glass is half full, not half empty. Although there are issues troubling Scottish football, the game certainly remains strong at the grass roots and that is what we need to support. It is important to thank, as Malcolm Chisholm has done, all those who give such sterling service in each and every one of our communities and constituencies. The game is built upon its grass roots. That is where the foundations remain, and the clubs and individuals give a great deal of commitment.

It is not easy being involved in grass-roots football, whether for young people or for women. It takes a lot of time out of people’s family life and working life, and it can cost a significant amount of money. People may have to go through the understandable inconvenience of various checks and disclosures, and they must surmount all of that to be able to do what we all appreciate and welcome in terms of their commitment.

It is not an either/or choice between the grass-roots game and the pinnacle of the professional game. They are both dependent upon each other and they need to show mutual respect and to work together. Earlier this afternoon, I was down at Easter Road with two new signings for Hibernian—a 22-year-old and a 24-year-old. One of them has moved to a full-time contract. That may be the pinnacle of his career or it may not. He may go on to even greater heights than playing for Hibs at Easter Road, but it is a momentous moment for him and it is probably something that he dreamt about as a youngster, as many do. Very few have the opportunity to do what he and his colleague have done by making that progress, but it is in many cases what drives people.

People all over the world will tune in on Saturday evening for the champions league final. I enjoy the grass-roots game, but I also enjoy supporting the game at its elite level. Scottish football has had its difficulties, but there are good things happening. The national team under Gordon Strachan is doing remarkably well, and I hope that we will see it succeed not simply in friendly matches, despite the controversy, but more importantly in the fixture next week that really matters for qualification.

We must also recognise the importance of football in providing opportunities for youngsters, for women, for those with learning and educational difficulties and for those who are offending. All those people can be transformed by the power of football, and I believe that that is based on what the SFA and the clubs can provide, but more importantly on the base in the community that provides football opportunities.

We have seen progress. The growth in the women’s game is huge and significant and is very much to be welcomed. In youth football, we have seen a beneficial change. There may be fewer clubs but there are more teams. Perhaps it is the case that for too long in Scotland we have had too many people involved with clubs because of their own youngster, although that is admirable and appropriate. We have to look to the continent, where clubs have not just hundreds but thousands of youngsters. They are proper pyramid establishments, often with a professional club—perhaps even an elite team—at the top. That is the direction that we have to go in.

We have to support the professional game. That is not just about the consequence of what happens at the grass-roots level; it is about how the different levels work best together. That requires mutual respect. Given that, the game will flourish and go on to the success that we know it can and will have.

Photo of Cameron Buchanan Cameron Buchanan Conservative

Football is not just our national game; it is our national obsession. Since the early days, boys and now girls have grown up wanting to wear the dark blue jersey at Hampden. Football has the power to cross barriers, and getting it right at a young age can help to break down age-old prejudices in class, gender, race and religion. Youth football is not just about nurturing the next generation of professionals. It also helps youngsters to learn transferable skills that can be used in everyday life, such as teamwork, dedication and hard work.

Ensuring that we have enough coaches who are sufficiently skilled to teach our kids the right footballing and life lessons is very important. Historically, Scotland has always been at the top of the game when it comes to coaching. Largs on the west coast is home to the prestigious SFA-run elite coaching centre, where many of the game’s greats earned their stripes, including the special one—no, I am not referring to Chic Brodie, but to José Mourinho.

Despite that, there have sadly been declining standards in our national game over the past two decades. The McLeish report sought to provide a pathway back to the top table, and youth football was placed at the centre of that ambition. The report called for a minimum of 20 football academies and an increase in participation to 500,000. Therefore, the creation of a national academy based in Edinburgh is to be welcomed. It is a place where youngsters can come and learn from the best, both on and off the pitch, and it will hopefully help develop the next generation of Dalglishs and Laws. More needs to be done, however.

In August 2012 the Scottish FA commenced the performance schools project, which is designed for elite boys and girls and runs from secondary 1 to 4. In Edinburgh the programme is located at Broughton high school, where participants undertake their football education within the standard school curriculum. The beauty of the programme is its marriage between football skills and academic qualifications. Not everyone turns professional, and having a solid education is just as important as having a thunderous right boot.

I reserve special a mention for Spartans FC, as did Malcolm Chisholm. Spartans has created an almost professional set-up with its age-grade and senior teams. Spartans is a model of diversity, housing the senior men’s, junior and women’s teams under the same roof, which I think is very important. The partnership between the club and Edinburgh Leisure has shown what can be achieved with public and private co-operation.

I have always believed that, if clubs set aside rivalries, we could have a far more integrated youth coaching set-up, particularly for provincial clubs. Across the water in Fife, we have a regional academy, which draws together four professional teams that provide coaching until the age of 16. Upon graduation, players have the choice of four different clubs to sign for. I believe that, if anyone in the chamber can help clubs to set aside rivalries, it is Chic Brodie, a man who has swapped sides more times than Mo Johnston.

Changing a system is never easy, and there have been bumps along the road. Mark Wotte, the Dutch coach who was appointed to oversee the reforms of the McLeish report, recently left the SFA, saying:

“Some people in Scotland are reluctant to change.”

That is disappointing, as we need more men like him—more men like Ian Cathro, who set up a youth football academy in Dundee, which helped to produce a string of technically gifted players at Tannadice. They include Ryan Gauld, who now plays for Sporting Lisbon in Portugal. Ian Cathro’s talents took him to Portugal and now to Spain, where he is assistant manager at Valencia. Success stories such as those should be championed, but we should also be disappointed not to have retained talent like that in Scotland.

Youth football in Scotland has never been run so professionally. We have more coaches and volunteers than ever before. There is still a long way to go before we can match our continental competitors, but we are on the right track. The growth and success of the women’s game should serve as a template and inspiration, and I urge the SFA and the Scottish Government to continue to collaborate to ensure that every youngster has the opportunity to learn the life skills associated with playing football.

Photo of John Pentland John Pentland Labour

I speak in my capacity as convener of the Public Petitions Committee. As other members have done, I thank Chic Brodie for bringing the motion to the chamber for debate.

The petition by William Smith and Scott Robertson, having been lodged in 2010, has the dubious distinction of being one of the oldest that is still on the committee’s books. We are still considering three interlinked issues: contracts or registration agreements with professional clubs; young elite players being able to play for school teams; and the system of compensation payments between clubs for the transfer of young players under the age of 16.

Children up to 14 can register with a club for a maximum of one season, with registration lapsing at the end of each season. Thereafter, registration carries forward from 15 to 16 and from 16 to 17, which means that a 15-year-old player can be kept for a further two years. In 2010, the committee took evidence from the Scottish Premier League, the Scottish Football Association, Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, the director of youth development at Rangers and the heads of two football club youth academies. Although the SFA is primarily responsible for the operation of the sport, it is right that the Parliament and the Scottish Government ask questions about how appropriate and fair the arrangements are.

Football’s governing bodies told us that the concern arises from misunderstandings and that change is not required. However, the petitioners, some young players and their parents and the children’s commissioner feel that the arrangements restrict young players’ freedoms and act in the interests of the clubs rather than those of the young players. The SFA says that FIFA requires national football associations to have a system in place to reward young players, but are our systems fair?

Since 2010, some changes have been made. Some young elite players can now play for their school team, but for those who train several times a week and play matches at the weekend, is that fair? A new system of transfer compensation payments has been introduced, which prescribes payments ranging from £600 to £1,500, depending on the club’s contribution to the club academy Scotland programme.

Despite the changes, however, there are still concerns. In June last year, the Public Petitions Committee asked the children’s commissioner to review the registration process and report his findings back to us. We recently received his report, which makes for interesting reading. I welcome his recommendations. They include the point that young players’ rights must be respected when entering into what is in effect a contract, as the current arrangements create an imbalance of power. The report further recommends that registration for older youth players should not carry over from the end of a season, and that young players should not be prevented from playing football because professional clubs are negotiating trade deals. The commissioner also recommends that the registration process needs to be independently monitored and that there should be a clear complaints mechanism. One point that I agree with whole-heartedly is that clubs must take greater account of young people’s rights and should respect all their needs, rather than just treating them as footballing assets or, worse, monetary investments.

The committee will take evidence from the commissioner on his findings before the summer recess. I commend his report to the Parliament.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

The registration/contract situation pertaining to young footballers has been the subject of debate over many years. In certain regards, where we find ourselves today is a considerable improvement on where Scottish football once was. I make that point not in any way to diminish the validity of our debating the matter—indeed, I congratulate Chic Brodie on giving us the opportunity to do so—but to bring a degree of context.

I go back the best part of 35 years to my early days as a sports journalist, when certain clubs signed up youngsters on lengthy professional contracts that involved options to extend. Those contracts bound rising talent to the teams for an initial term of, perhaps, four years. Then, if the club wanted to hang on to them because they had progressed to the point of becoming a playing or financial asset, the option was exercised to extend the contract for perhaps another three years. There was of course no guarantee, so the option was of one-way benefit to the club, and the player could be held on to regardless of whether he wanted that.

Notwithstanding the current problems with the youth registration process, it is fair to say that the Scottish game has become far better organised and more professional in its development of young players, which is to everyone’s benefit. Let us acknowledge that a number of our major clubs, such as Aberdeen—the team that Mark McDonald and I support—Dundee United, Hamilton and Hearts are bringing through talented home-reared players, which is to be welcomed. However, it is only right and proper that we demand from a sport that can—in far less than equal measure—fulfil or destroy young people’s dreams the same standards of treatment of young people as we demand from other sectors of our society.

The Scottish football authorities need to respond appropriately to the report from Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, which is being considered by the Public Petitions Committee, as we have heard. They could undoubtedly, without undermining the structures that deliver emerging young talent in the SPFL, deliver on a number of the key recommendations in the report. I will pick out five key demands that relate to the pre-formal contract phase of a young player’s development.

Recommendation 3 says:

“Professional youth football in Scotland needs to undergo a significant attitudinal change. The clubs and to some extent the Scottish FA refer to youth players purely in terms of investment and fail to acknowledge the young person in their own right.”

Recommendation 7 is:

“Rules are required on the formation, performance, enforcement and impact of … contracts. Rights and remedies must be accessible, relevant, independent and effective for children and young people.”

Recommendation 11 says:

“Steps must be taken to avoid situations where a child or young person is prevented from playing football for an entire season, whilst professional clubs negotiate trade deals.”

Recommendation 12 states:

“The youth registration process is an agreement between two parties that places obligations on both. To ensure it takes account of the interests and rights of children and young people as much as the interests of professional football clubs it needs to be regulated and monitored in a manner that is independent of the clubs.”

The final recommendation is:

“Regardless of whether or not an independent regulatory body is established a clear process needs to be put in place immediately to ensure that children and young people can lodge a complaint where they feel their rights have been infringed by a club”.

Those are not unreasonable expectations in this day and age. We cannot continue to have a situation in which, as the commissioner says in his overview,

“it is reasonable to conclude that the terms of the contact are not necessarily mutually agreed as they are not adequately understood”, and in which

“The process of cancelling or renewing a young person’s registration would”, as the report asserts,

“appear to be skewed in favour of the best interests of the professional club”, or in which, from the age of 10, children are, in effect, making a decision that ties them to one professional team for the duration of their youth football years, unless another side steps in and reimburses the training costs.

Surely no one would deny the appropriateness of ensuring that each young person who registers to play with a pro club is provided with age-appropriate guidance on what registration means in advance of signing, or that age-appropriate versions of codes of conduct are developed.

Some people will balk at some of what is proposed. They will predict that implementation of the measures would put clubs off bringing through youngsters and undermine the development process. I am not sure why that would be the case. Surely the better that young players are treated, the more likely it is that they will choose to remain with the club to which they are linked, and the club will inevitably get far more out of a contented player than they will get from one who is being forcibly held on to. In other words, everyone wins.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

I congratulate Chic Brodie on securing the debate, which focuses on youth football.

From members’ speeches, there is no doubt that football is a big part of our lives and our upbringing. I very much align myself with that. Football is also really important in our constituencies. It plays a big part in many of the communities that we represent and, historically, has made a major contribution to them. I will note some of the local successes in my constituency.

I highlight the excellent work of the Blantyre Soccer Academy, which is chaired and organised by a local, Jimmy Whelan. It is an excellent club that supports many boys and girls in the community. The highlight for the club each year is the Reamonn Gormley memorial soccer festival, which is held in celebration of young Reamonn Gormley, who tragically lost his life in a stabbing in 2011. It allows many young teams in Lanarkshire to come together, raises money for charity and helps to support the Gormley family. That is indeed something to celebrate.

I also very much welcome the growth in women’s and girls football in recent years. In fact, two youngsters from my constituency—Murron Cunningham from Stonelaw high school and Brogan Hay from Trinity high school—are part of the Scotland under-15s girls team. They are very much to be commended on their success.

Football can be used positively. Nil by Mouth has some excellent schemes in which it uses football as a method to tackle sectarianism and bring down barriers between communities. I strongly commend the work of Dave Scott and his team in that regard.

Although we want to celebrate youth football and, like Kenny MacAskill, be positive about the current state of play with regard to Scottish football, Chic Brodie raises some important issues about the way in which young people are treated. As John Pentland pointed out, when young people are tied into contracts and are unable to play as freely as they would like, that is both unfair and an infringement of their rights. It is also totally unacceptable that clubs are paying youngsters less than the minimum wage. As Chic Brodie said, it is incumbent not only on the clubs but on the football authorities—the SFA and the SPFL—to take responsibility in this area and ensure that that does not happen.

The Public Petitions Committee’s examination of the SCCYP’s report gives us an opportunity not only to examine the issues but ensure that we can hold the clubs and the football organisations to account. We have an opportunity to celebrate the success of youth football and to ensure that the arrangements around taking good care of our youngsters are robust in future.

Photo of Mark McDonald Mark McDonald Scottish National Party

I stand as someone who has been a youth football player and a youth football coach, having coached the under-13s team at Dyce Boys Club before I was elected. Dyce Boys Club and Albion Boys Club, which are the two youth clubs in Aberdeen that tend to compete for honours, alongside Lewis United Youth, are based in my constituency. Lewis United Youth is an interesting club because it was established as a result of players being released from the Aberdeen FC under-12 development squad, and it has since grown to become a much larger club, with teams at all age groups.

Dyce was the club that I coached at. Its past players include Graeme Shinnie, who lifted the Scottish cup for Inverness Caledonian Thistle at the weekend; his brother, Andrew, who plays for Birmingham City; the recently retired Aberdeen captain, Russell Anderson; and Stuart Armstrong, who recently signed for Celtic from Dundee United. Many youth clubs can point to players who are plying their trade professionally as being players who have come through their system. Many can also attest to the ones who got away.

The point about the expectations of young people is prescient. When my brother played youth football—he was a contemporary of Shaun Maloney, who played for one of his competitor clubs—he played alongside players in the Aberdeen squad that went to the Jack Wood tournament in Wales who were training with professional clubs because, at that time, those clubs did not have their own age-group-specific teams per se but would instead take players who were attached to other clubs to train with them and then decide who they would sign up at a later stage. Now, clubs have development squads at all age groups, consisting of a large number of boys. Chic Brodie makes the point that, at the point at which they sign for the clubs, many of those youngsters do not realise just how few people can make it in the game. Perhaps we need to do more to manage the expectation levels of the players and their parents.

There is a question about how we develop young players. I am passionate about summer football. When I coached at youth level, one of the most frustrating things was trying to encourage passing football and the skills that are taught in the gym hall or the training area when the youngsters were out on the pitch in some of the weather conditions that we experience in Scotland in January and February. At those times, it becomes much more difficult for young players, in particular, to develop and hone their skills, and they end up developing kick-and-rush football techniques because, in driving rain and gale-force winds, that is all that is possible.

How professional clubs interact with what we call feeder clubs or the established youth clubs when young players are released needs to be looked at, so that those players are not left to find a club at a time when they will be upset that they are no longer going to continue in the system of a professional club.

My final point is the issue of the loss of municipal pitches, which we need to look at very carefully. In my constituency, the Aberdeen Lads Club pitches are about to be developed on. That will result in the loss of a number of grass pitches, which are to be replaced by one 3G pitch not within that community but elsewhere in the city, in the community of Northfield, which is set to benefit.

Although 3G pitches can be used more than grass pitches because of the quality of the surface, we need to look very carefully at how municipal pitches and their upkeep are being protected. We need to ensure that, when our young, developing players play on those pitches, they are able to play the game in the way that we would expect it to be played and can develop their skills from there.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I thank all members who have taken part in the debate, and I thank Chic Brodie for securing the debate, which has allowed Parliament to consider the benefits that youth football can bring across the country.

I know that Mr Brodie has a keen interest in football and that he was a very good footballer in his youth. I know that primarily because Mr Brodie assures me that that was the case. He is a survivor of the junior leagues in Dundee, which makes my own modest achievements in football pale in comparison.

In a week when we can all accept that football has had its difficulties internationally, this debate can serve as a reminder of what is good about football and the opportunities for youngsters to take part in something they love. Young people—both girls and boys—taking part in football are the lifeblood of the game, so we must do all that we can to encourage to them to flourish, make the most of their talent and, I hope, get the opportunity to have successful careers.

Chic Brodie raised legitimate concerns about the processes of player registration with professional clubs, which I will come to in due course. First, it is important to recognise that most youth football is delivered at the amateur level. Only a very small proportion will be delivered through Scotland’s professional clubs. That means that thousands of volunteers across the country—mums and dads and dedicated coaches—are devoting their time to support youngsters to take part in youth football. Of course, all members will have many examples of such youth clubs in their areas. James Kelly reminded us of the importance of football to communities across Scotland. It is appropriate at this juncture to put on record my thanks—and, I am sure, all members’ thanks—for the efforts of those volunteers involved in amateur youth football.

Many members gave examples of good work in their areas. James Kelly gave a very specific illustration of how powerful football can be as a positive example of community cohesion: the tournament held to honour the memory of Reamonn Gormley. I thank Mr Kelly for bringing that to the chamber.

Malcolm Chisholm made the point that we must do more to support girls into football. I quite agree with that perspective, and I am sure that Malcolm Chisholm would agree that that point can be made about sport more generally.

Photo of Mark McDonald Mark McDonald Scottish National Party

Through the establishment of the quality mark, football clubs that were oriented towards boys are now branching out to include training sessions and teams for girls, which allows more people to get involved in football at the grass roots. The quality mark has been a very welcome addition.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I recognise that. In my area we have a very good example of a club that has gone through that process—the Cumbernauld Colts, which offers opportunities right across the age ranges to 500-plus youngsters, including girls. I was delighted to learn that the club now not only has that status but has just been accepted into full membership of the SFA, which is a great recognition of the effort that it makes locally. I suppose that I, too, am allowed to give a specific local example in these debates, Presiding Officer—I hope that you will allow me to do so.

I return to the issue of the role of girls in football and in sport more generally. I was privileged to attend the Scottish women in sport conference last week. These issues were being taken up there. The Scottish Government commissioned the working group on women in sport, which was chaired by Baroness Sue Campbell. Sportscotland is now taking forward the work of that group through its own equalities subgroup, which will ultimately report to the board.

I very much recognise that we have to promote positive role models for girls. Such examples do exist. Chic Brodie has raised concerns about the role of elite clubs—I promise I will address those concerns in a second—but I can think of a very positive example from one of Scotland’s elite clubs. Glasgow City Football Club is the best women’s team in the country. Indeed, it was the last Scottish club left in Europe in the season just past—it got the furthest of any of the clubs competing in Europe. I was delighted to meet Laura Montgomery, who is a co-founder and director of the club. I was struck by the club’s determination to support young girls into football and provide positive role models through the players in the first team.

I turn to the specific points that Chic Brodie raised on youth football contracts and registration issues. I know that the Public Petitions Committee has been working on this issue since 2010 when the petition was lodged with it and that Chic Brodie has taken a close interest in it. The committee requested that Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People undertake a comprehensive review on the current registration process, particularly from a rights perspective. Mr Brodie and the convener of the committee both mentioned that. I am very pleased to see that the review has been completed and that the committee has begun to consider it. As a thorough and substantial report, it incorporates a child’s rights impact assessment, explores the views of young players and has a wide range of recommendations for those involved in youth football, particularly the clubs and the SFA, to consider.

It is a bit premature for me to comment on the report in too much detail. I know that the committee still has a job of work to do. The convener has confirmed that the committee will take evidence from the commissioner. I look forward to seeing the results from that and seeing where the committee takes the petition.

I have seen some of the coverage generated by Mr Brodie’s contact with the press over the weekend. Mr Brodie alluded to the example of the young man who is unable to play for his university team or at an amateur level because the professional club that holds his registration refuses to release him from it. That clearly seems unfair and unreasonable.

I can inform Mr Brodie that I have sought a meeting with the commissioner to discuss his report. I am also very happy to meet Mr Brodie directly to discuss his concerns and perspective on this matter.

I have recognised the legitimate concerns that Mr Brodie has raised, but we should also recognise the vast good that is out there in youth football across Scotland. I thank Chic Brodie for securing tonight’s debate to give us the opportunity to do just that.

Meeting closed at 17:48.