THEY call it the beautiful game, but these days fans of Scottish football may well be struggling to see the beauty in cash-strapped clubs, rows over sectarian songs and half-empty stadia on grey, windswept Saturday afternoons.
But never mind, because thousands of miles away on a football pitch in a small, sun-baked Californian “Gold Rush” town, the Corte Madera branch of the Tartan Army – youth division, clearly – is being put through its paces.
With a flash of tartan, small heads sweating under ‘See You Jimmy’ bunnets and an encouraging Scottish accent ringing in their ears, young Americans are embracing Scottish football and learning the fine art of taking a decent shy, the names of SPL top teams and – perhaps a tall order these days – just who our best-known players might be.
And the sad fact that Scottish teams may have some way to go before we can boast of having a home-grown Lionel Messi in our midst is of little consequence when the ‘clan’ swings into play and, for a short while at least, Scottish ‘fitba’ is once more an international player . . .
The Scottish-themed soccer camps have been organised by two former Edinburgh University students who hit on the idea after visiting America’s west coast and seeing for themselves the enthusiasm there for Scottish culture and, of course, our soccer skills.
Inspired by the thought of combining both elements under the umbrella of a single Scottish-themed sports camp, Edinburgh City midfielder Scott Macfarlane, 23, and East Fife defender Andy Cook, 25, launched Trans-Atlantic Soccer last year.
The first tartan clad camps, Coaches in Kilts, kicked off last year at Corte Madera on the edge of San Francisco Bay and Saratoga, in the heart of California wine country and on the fringes of Silicon Valley.
There, youngsters received a tartan trimmed taste of silky Scottish football skills – playing as part of a ‘clan’ with Saltires fluttering around the pitch and Scottish qualified coaches, appropriately attired in kilts, flown out to California in order to pass on their knowledge of the game.
Once the American youngsters had exhausted small legs on the soccer pitch, attention was turned to learning more about Scotland’s culture and sports, in a series of Highland Games challenges that, among other activities with a Scottish flavour, saw them tossing the caber and doing the Highland fling.
“It’s almost taken for granted that because we’re Scottish, we’re experts at soccer,” explains Scott, a former Balerno High School pupil who now lives in Polwarth.
“The kids that come to our camps might not be fantastic footballers – they are really just beginning the sport and usually their coaches are parents who don’t really know much about the game themselves.
“For example, they call shooting a ‘power kick’ and I’ve heard them telling the kids to kick and run more rather than trying to pass the ball.
“However, the kids are hugely enthusiastic. They want to learn to play and they want to learn about Scotland.”
He adds: “So much of the population there claims to be part Scottish – it felt like every time I spoke to someone they’d ask where I was from and did I know so and so.
“And we felt that if we could provide a football camp that also had a real Scottish twist, then they’d really go for it.”
Scott, who studied sports management and now handles sports sponsorship deals at marketing firm Material, and Andy, of Dalry, a PE teacher at Forrester High, took the plunge to launch the unique camps after graduating and finding job opportunities were as scarce as a Scottish Cup in a Hibs trophy cabinet.
Along with fellow Edinburgh University graduate James Hair, 26, who now works with accountancy firm Ernst & Young, they received financial backing from the Princes Scotland Youth Business Trust.
But it was a call out of the blue from one of the best-known names in Scottish football that gave them the final push to launch their camps Stateside.
“Gordon Smith had just left his role as chief executive of the SFA and it turned out he’d heard about what we were trying to do,” recalls Scott.
“He called up and said he’d like to meet us. He said he could identify with what we wanted to do because he’s spent time in America.
“He agreed to be our honorary president so we could get things off the ground.”
Their soccer business has also branched out further, and also runs tours for youngsters from Scotland and around the world, bringing them on custom-made excursions to the UK’s top Premier League and SPL stadia. There, they tour trophy rooms of big name clubs including Manchester United and Manchester City, learn about the importance of health and fitness from top-level coaches and take inspiration from visiting some of the biggest-name venues in football.
Meanwhile, this summer the Coaches in Kilts courses will expand further, doubling in size with camps run in the San Francisco Bay and Silicon Valley areas of California, with around 120 young Americans expected to take part.
Eventually, the aim is to branch out even more, running camps during autumn as well as summer and with a programme of Coaches in Kilts in southern California too.
It’s the unique combination of football and Scotland that has touched a nerve with the Californian children and families, agrees East Fife defender Andy.
“They just seem to have a kind of affiliation with the Scottish people. Everyone over there is either a quarter Scottish or an eighth Irish, so everyone relates to us.
“And because they are over on the west coast and so far away, they actually see Scotland as quite an exotic place – funny, I know – but they love the accent and everything about Scotland.”
Thankfully, awkward questions about who our most famous players might be and whether Scotland has ever won the World Cup don’t pose too many problems, he jokes.
“Okay, there’s not much mention of East Fife, admittedly, but they talk about Celtic and Rangers and want to know which side of the Old Firm you’re on.
“They do seem to think they are the only two teams in Scotland, so you find yourself just nodding along.
“I tend to skip over the famous players question and refer them to all the Scottish managers and coaches like Sir Alex Ferguson and the other Scottish managers of Premiership clubs.
“I say that okay, we might not have that many great players just now,” he jokes, “but just look at the great coaches we produce!”
• For information about Trans-Atlantic Soccer’s matchday and weekend English Premiership tours for school groups and youth teams, go to http://www.transatlanticsoccer.com/english-premier-league-tours
Scottish football is suffering from a downturn, so could America be the answer?
After all, some Scottish players have found success across the Atlantic.
Former Rangers player John Spencer is head coach of Major League Soccer (MLS) team Portland Timbers. Last week, he signed Scotland international and fellow ex-Ger Kris Boyd.
One-time Celtic and Aberdeen player Jamie Smith appears for Colorado Rapids in MLS, while former Hibs man Tam McManus was there in 2008-9.
Scot Steve Nicol, who played with Liverpool, was coach of New England Revolution, and became the longest-tenured head coach to lead a single MLS club.
Former Dunfermline and Hibs player Stephen Glass played with Carolina Railhawks in the professional North American Soccer League until he joined Shamrock Rovers earlier this year as assistant manager.
Ex-Old Firm player Maurice Johnston joined MLS’s Kansas City Wizards in 1996 and was director of soccer for Canadian side Toronto FC until last year.