In the latest instalment of our Q&A series with key personnel from the Scottish FA, Head of Football Development Andy Gould talks about how grassroots football has been impacted by the pandemic and what the football development department are doing to navigate their way through these difficult times.

For more detailed information on the return to grassroots/community football, please read the Frequently Asked Questions document

As football continues to be shut down, what are the main challenges for the grassroots game during this difficult period?

Football is about people, it’s a community sport which can bring everyone together from all walks of life, all ages and all ability levels, so the biggest challenge has been seeing how COVID-19 has affected people in our game. We are all aware of someone in the game that has been directly impacted by this and we empathise with their situation.

Beyond the human and social impact we are all adapting to this new situation and must find ways of working to support each other, making sure people are safe, well and feel connected. The main challenge has been the gap in people’s lives of playing football as well as the physical, mental and social benefits they get from participating in the game.

What have you been doing within football development to help clubs cope during this time?

We have more than 3,000 clubs across Scotland that provide people with the chance to enjoy football. These clubs are all of different scales, have varying ambitions and so they all face challenges depending on their situation. Some have facilities and full-time staff and have had to deal with facility closure, no activity to bring in income and therefore the challenge is mainly financial. Other clubs have a huge part to play in their community beyond football and have been unable to make the same connections and provide the same level of support to people that often rely upon them.

Our first job was to gain an understanding of these issues and how the situation would impact clubs and we’ve done this by being in regular contact with as many of them as possible. We have built up a good picture of the position clubs are in across the country and this will help us plan what support we can provide going forward, and at the right times.

For football development our main priority is to support clubs, coaches and volunteers as well as delivering a range of programmes which allow people to participate in football and so we’ve tried to innovate and find ways to keep engaging. Of course there hasn’t been any activity on the pitch but there is still a lot we can do to promote our game and now as we look forward, there is a lot of planning, preparing and solution focussed work that we can do to get ready for a phased return to our game.

We have had the chance to provide clubs, coaches, volunteers and parents with access to material through our online activity hub which has proved popular. It provides a whole range of skills and challenges that young people can do at home to keep them active and engaged through football.

How involved have you been in the discussions of restarting football at a grassroots level?

Like everyone involved in the game, the staff across the department have missed not being able to play football or see their children get the chance to go to their local club and be physically active. We know the huge benefit our game provides to those that take part so we are especially keen to see a return to football, however we understand this is going to be a challenging and difficult process.

We are actively involved in the various sub groups created across the Scottish FA looking at how and when we can restart football. This has included working directly with the Affiliated National Associations and Leagues as well as with external stakeholders such as The Scottish Government Active Scotland Division, sportscotland and COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) as well as other sports. As we have recently seen the publication of the Scottish Government route map we are now, like other sports, looking into how football fits into this process. There will be a big focus on this in the coming weeks as we develop plans and liaise with these stakeholders to ensure we meet the guidelines and fit in with the requirements against each of the phases.

At the moment no formal organised football should be undertaken although people who wish to informally practice outdoors with one other person or members of their household should follow Scottish Government guidance on health, physical distancing and hygiene.  

Professional football in Scotland is aiming to return in August, when do you think we’ll see grassroots football restart again?
With the Scottish Government route map now published and working in consultation with sportscotland we can start to work out how football as a contact sport can fit into the guidelines and ensure we are able to comply with the various requirements. We are unable to give specific dates at the moment but we can start to plan for football returning in stages, linked to the route map. Firstly we must look at the phase at which training and practice sessions can return through meeting the social distancing guidelines as well as all the other necessary requirements that still need to be met such as Child Wellbeing and First Aid. I would expect this to be the first step for grassroots football. At the moment no formal organised football should be undertaken at the present time although people who wish to informally practice outdoors with one other person or members of their household should follow Scottish Government guidance on health, physical distancing and hygiene.  

Clubs and other football groups will also be dependent on facility access and so this will be a sizeable challenge we need to face up to. Some clubs will have their own facility and may be able to plan more effectively for a return. Clubs that are reliant on local authority facilities and access to the school estate may have more challenges and the timelines may be different but we will be in dialogue with sportscotland, the Scottish Government and COSLA on these issues. We know that football as a contact sport is different to other sports such as bowls, golf and tennis that are now being allowed under strict guidelines and so it could still be a while before we move to the phase where matches can take place and we must rely on the science and clear guidance on this. The positive step is that there is now a framework and guidance to allow us to look ahead and plan the stages.

How have you been communicating with grassroots clubs around the country during this time?

It is vital we keep communicating with clubs as best we can and this has been both nationally and regionally through surveys, email communications and online meetings as is the new norm. We have a series of regional online meetings planned for the next few weeks to speak to clubs and get an idea of the challenges they face and how they aim to overcome them. Clubs are extremely resilient and innovative so often our role is about sharing best practice. Some of the simple ideas that clubs have tried have worked very well.

We have also kept in touch via our club newsletters and have tried to provide some ideas on how clubs can continue to engage with their coaches and players at this time.

Social media has also been extremely useful and we have seen lots of clubs posting examples of the various ways they are continuing to engage with players and the wider community.
There are so often inspirational stories from people working hard in grassroots clubs. Do you have any examples of people who are going above and beyond to help people, despite the challenges we are facing?

One of the best parts of the jobs is seeing the passion and enthusiasm our clubs have for their communities and the people that play the game. We get a chance to recognise a small fraction of these fantastic volunteers, coaches and clubs via our Grassroots Awards which are supported by McDonald’s and The Sunday Mail. Every year we have the chance to shine a light on what they do. This terrible situation has shown again how incredible football clubs in Scotland are and how they take on the responsibility they feel they have for their community.

There are many clubs that have responded to the situation and provided outreach work to support people in most need at this time and I’ve seen at first hand the work that they have provided. My local club Stenhousemuir FC have been a wonderful example of a club utilising their limited resources to provide services to those in need through recruiting more than 150 volunteers to support families, deliver food parcels, provide hot meals, deliver lunches to those that are isolated and in need, as well as doing shopping trips, walking dogs and picking up prescriptions. I know they have delivered more than 11,550 hours of volunteer support to the community in this recent time so it’s just incredible to see what they are doing.

We know that many other clubs are continuing to engage with their players via online methods and they have produced programmes, curriculums and home content for their players and parents so there are still many inspirational stories. We have been privileged to share some of these stories through the Scottish FA website and via our newsletters to showcase some of the incredible work. I know we can’t tell them all but we are extremely grateful for the support they continue to provide for football and for the support they also offer for their communities.
How are you assisting the grassroots coaches who are looking to educate themselves ahead of football returning?
Education and learning has been a big opportunity for many people during this period and we have been working hard for some time, well before the lockdown began, to improve our coach education offering. The staff have worked incredibly hard to develop an updated coach education pathway and we have invested a lot of time and resource to improve the product we offer. As lockdown began we were determined to continue to provide support to coaches and the team have managed to create an online delivery approach which has been fantastically well received across the game. Because of the demand most of the football development team have been heavily focused on delivering courses during this last period and ensuring that coaches get the best possible support to enable them to be ready when football does finally return. The online approach has also enabled coaches that may not have been previously able to get involved the chance to participate and this will undoubtedly be good for our game when football does return. This is definitely an area that coaches have enjoyed and we will look to explore more ways of supporting coaches through innovative ways like this in the future.

It was also great to see the launch of the new Mental Health E-Learning Course which was expertly created by our colleagues at the Hampden Sports Medicine Centre and has already attracted more than 700 coaches to complete the free course. At this time when we know that the mental wellbeing of people is also being affected this course is a hugely welcome resource for coaches and volunteers across the game and I would certainly encourage people to go through it.

Have there been any examples of the way other sports are handling this situation that has inspired you or perhaps given you ideas to adopt during this period?

There is always best practice out there if you look for it and we have certainly been looking at and investigating other sports as well as what other countries are doing during this time to ensure we haven’t missed anything. It has been interesting to see how football has returned in other countries and we can certainly learn things from their methodology. As they have gone through the process earlier than us they have had to try things and we can see what works and what doesn’t.

Working with sportscotland will allow us to share good practice and safe practice across other sports and there is ongoing discussion to look at how we can ensure there are some common approaches on key areas. We look forward to being involved in a number of planned meetings over the next few weeks to share these ideas and best practice.

We know football is such a huge part of people’s life in Scotland and despite the difficult situation we face, as we go forward we must try to look at the opportunities and find ways to ensure football can come back strongly and in way that is perhaps better than before.

I know it must be a hugely frustrating time for everyone involved in the game, most of whom are desperate to get back on a pitch however we must make sure we follow the guidance and create clear and strong plans for a safe return.