Football for All: The Rise and Rise of Greenock United

At 24, Michael McLennan does not fit the image of a stereotypical support worker, nor is he the overbearing character often seen berating young men from the side of a football pitch on a Saturday morning. Yet he fulfils both these roles on a regular basis.

Were it not for the club crest adorning his jacket, you would think he was here on a glacial February evening in Greenock to play 7-a-side with his mates on the next park.

“Absolutely freezing.” He looks scornfully out the car window, before turning the heating up and rolling down the volume on the latest Courteeners album. Michael is a development worker for The Advisory Group, a unique organisation which is run alongside the people with learning disabilities that it aims to support.

“I’m not a football coach,” he says, holding his hands up. “But it’s part of my job to develop opportunities based on what people want.” In 2015, during Learning Disabilities Week, he organised taster sessions for adults who wanted to play football, and significant demand became immediately apparent.

“We didn’t think people were looking for something competitive, more just a chance to have a kick-about.” However, the enthusiasm at the initial sessions hinted at the potential to establish something more than just one hour a week in a gym hall. “It would have been easy to book a pitch every week, get ten guys together and give them a football, but what happens when I can’t make it along for whatever reason?” He shrugs, before answering the question for me. “The whole thing falls apart.”

He approached Greenock United, an amateur football club from Inverclyde in Scotland, who run a children’s disability team as part of their setup. Following the success of the sample sessions, Michael pitched the idea of starting an adult equivalent. “It’s all about sustainability.” He explains with conviction. “I wanted to link up with a ‘mainstream’ club who already had resources and infrastructure in place. I felt there was more chance of it growing that way, instead of trying to set up something from scratch.” It’s proven a wise decision.

Since linking up with Greenock United, participation has grown from 4 to over 25 players across two teams. Ages range from 16 to 62, including one committed youngster who journeys from West Kilbride. The club has registered in the National Disability League, and plays competitive matches all over the country. Additionally, a sponsorship deal with Glasgow fish-and-chip chain Blue Lagoon led to a feature on STV Glasgow’s Live at 5.

“It’s definitely exceeded expectations,” Michael admits. “The STV thing was nice, and the boys were excited about getting on the TV, but in the long run it’s not so much about things like that.” It’s clear that he’s passionate about the work he does, and the people he works with.

“It’s had a massive impact on many of the guy’s lives. They’re travelling across the country to play, and meeting people they wouldn’t have otherwise.” Michael grins as he name-checks several players – including 62-year-old “Wiggy”, apparently the biggest character at the club. When asked if there was one player who stood out as being a particular success story, he speaks fondly of 21-year-old Matthew.

“Matthew has a profound physical disability, and no verbal capacity whatsoever, but being part of Greenock United has given him a confidence boost, whereas before he could have found himself quite isolated.” He explains that whereas Matthew normally requires round the clock support, at football he can just hang around with his mates. “It’s been great for his family as well; they can see there are opportunities out there for him. He gets dropped off, plays football then gets picked up again, just like everybody else.”

Michael speaks with such enthusiasm that there are moments where it’s as if I’m not there, and he’s just reflecting on the impact the team has had. It’s an endeavour that continues well past his regular working hours, and while he is obviously proud, there is no lack of humility regarding what’s been achieved.

“It wouldn’t have been possible if Greenock United hadn’t been so open-minded, I was lucky I found the right people to take it forward.” He gives credit to the club’s chairman Ian Borland, who collaborated with The Advisory Group from the outset, and everyone else who assists. “We managed to find guys who were willing to help with coaching and funding, and that’s what we rely on – people willing to give up their time.”

The team has been an undoubted success, but Michael says there remains a gap in provision for those with learning disabilities and ‘mainstream’ clubs, and admits there is no simple answer to the problem. “There isn’t always funding for job roles like mine in other areas, but all it could take is somebody to seek out demand and build opportunities.” He says, before wavering. “Maybe I’m simplifying it a bit, it’s hard to say.”

I ask what he sees as being the future for the team – is he himself in it for the long haul? “Definitely.” He answers without hesitation. “As long as the boys want to play, and as long as I’m able to be here, I will be.”

For a young man with a full-time job and a social life to maintain, his commitment is admirable – not least on frosty Tuesday nights such as this one.  Our time is coming to an end, as some of his most dedicated players arrive early for training.

“They don’t feel the cold, this lot.” He laughs.

As we part ways, I pose a final question – what would you say to anyone who’s unsure about coming along?

“Come along and try it,” He replies, slinging a huge bag of footballs over his shoulder. “The thing about the club is that we focus on people’s ability, not their disability.”

He visibly cringes at his own little cliché, but on this evidence, it’s certainly not untrue.

 

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