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Training sessions conducted by Sir Alex Ferguson during his time at Aberdeen proved to be an education for one of the Scottish FA’s most experienced coaches.

Walter Borthwick has been in the game for over 40 years and retires next week.

He’s ready to look back, and forward, at the evolution of coaching and grassroots football in Scotland.

“I have tried to be like a sponge,” the former Hearts first team coach said. “Right from the beginning, when I was studying Sir Alex Ferguson while he was at Aberdeen, I’ve been learning. You never stop.

Walter began his professional playing career at Greenock Morton in 1965. He then had spells with St Mirren, St Johnston, Dunfermline and East Fife. He briefly played for the Buddies while a young Sir Alex was at the helm.

It was during this period - aged 27 - that Walter planned for the future by taking his UEFA B Licence coaching certificate.

His A Licence came while at Dunfermline before he retired as a player aged 33. He was Hearts’ first team coach between 1980 and 89 – almost winning a league and cup double -  and had a brief spell in charge of Arbroath.

He is keen to encourage would-be coaches out there to get into the game.

“Aspiring coaches of all levels can get the opportunity to watch professional clubs train,” he said.

“I was fortunate in that I knew Sir Alex and he allowed me to watch his sessions. Coaches out there should just ask the clubs, I’m sure they will allow you to observe training. It’s a great way to learn.”

He became a football development officer for the Scottish FA in 1996, covering East Lothian in the South East region. This allowed him to pass on his knowledge of the game to the grassroots.

“I’ve loved seeing players develop on the field and off it,” he said. “There are so many good people giving up their spare time to be involved in grassroots football.

“It’s often said, but grassroots football really is the lifeblood of the game.”

Coach education courses - offered by the Scottish FA - are available for all levels and all ages. Walter said he believed that through these, the standard of football – both on and off it – had improved over the years.

“Good coaching is vital for the development of the game,” he said. “This is something the Scottish FA does very well. They cater for coaching at the grassroots right up to the UEFA A Pro Licence.”

Positive Coaching Scotland
– a programme incorporated into all Scottish FA grassroots programmes aimed at creating a more attractive environment for young players – would have been unheard of when Walter was playing.
But its mantra is welcomed.

“When it first arrived I had my doubts about it as I thought it was all a bit American,” Walter said.

“But it has really struck a nerve with parents and clubs.

“It’s now been tailored for the Scottish culture and, I think, will have a lasting effect at clubs all over the country.

“We need to make the environment as attractive as possible to keep the number of players growing.”

A lack of facilities during winter months is an issue for Walter.

He said: “The winters seem to be getting longer. It’s great having outdoor 3G pitches but there is a lack of indoor ones, which we really need for two or three months of the year.

“I know there is work being done by the Scottish FA, through their new facilities manager, to improve the situation.”

One way of reducing the impact of winter weather could be to change the start of the football season, for all of the grassroots game, to March. Research and consultation is being conducted at the moment into this.

It’s been done in the female game and for the boys’ under-12 group. 

Walter said: “I don’t understand why people are so determined to play football in winter. I’d love to see a seasonal change.

“Everything the Scottish FA is doing in grassroots in geared towards increasing participation through creating an attractive modern game.

“I think that the longer nights in Spring and Summer would encourage more parents and their children to get involved in the game.

“It is a big change of course but I think it could come one day.”

A change which has come is a new structured elite performance system for nurturing the most talented young footballers in the country – the Performance Pathway.

Within the grassroots area of the Scottish FA’s remit sits the first step on this pathway.

2020 Development Centres provide players in primary five, six and seven the opportunity to receive weekly two-hour training sessions over a 36 week period.

Walter’s view is that this is a “step in the right direction” for improving the quality of player on the international stage.

He added: “You can have everything set up, all the structures in place, but nothing can be done without the right mentality of the player. I’ve worked with some talented players over the years who could have made it but the desire wasn’t there.”

March 29 is Walter’s last day in post.

“I’ve worked with some terrific people over the years,” he said. “To be able to work in football all these years has been a privilege.

“It’s time to let the next generation take over.”