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Football was 'an easy sell' . . . but was still 137 years in the making

THE gentle rumble pervades the douce atmosphere of the reception at an historic Glasgow institution.

Ian McCall has created an under-11 football team at Western Baths Club, the first time football has been played there competitvely since the club was founded. Picture: Phil Rider/LIghthouse Images
Ian McCall has created an under-11 football team at Western Baths Club, the first time football has been played there competitvely since the club was founded. Picture: Phil Rider/LIghthouse Images

It comes in gentle waves and is interspersed by cries and then the odd, massed shout. Realisation comes softly. Someone, somewhere, is playing football. Someone, somewhere, has scored a goal.

The truth is almost romantic. At the Western Baths Club, just off Byres Road, their first competitive game of boys' football is being played, at under 11s level. After 137 years, an institution has formally, but warmly, embraced fitba'.

The indoor playing arena has, of course, been no stranger to the round ball game and Ian McCall, former Rangers player and former manager of such as Dundee United and Partick Thistle, has taken coaching classes there for youngsters over the past few years. But yesterday saw the first competitive match at Western Baths since it opened in 1876. The honoured opponents were a side from Bishopton and, in the way of modern boys' football, it would almost be rude to count the goals - never mind tally the score - but the red-shirted Western boys were highly impressive.

There were watched by McCall, a man who sprayed passes around Ibrox and then bellowed and fretted up and down the technical areas of Falkirk, Clydebank, Airdrieonians, Dundee United, Queen of the South, Morton and Thistle.

Sitting in the club's bistro, he points to the photographs of characters and teams from history and says: "Wouldn't it be great if one of the boys who is playing here today can come into the club in 40 years and point to a photie on the wall of the first football team?"

His decision to form a competitive team came easily: "There has never been a football team here and I thought: 'Why not?' I took coaching sessions and some of the boys are really excellent. My plan is to play them in four-a-side matches here about once a month, against boys' clubs, BB teams, whatever."

It is perhaps fitting to talk of a pool of talent for a Western Baths team. Fraser Makeham, general manager of the club, points out that there are more than 600 junior members and that the idea of adding football to a roster that includes archery and netball was "an easy product to sell".

The club has 2500 members and Makeham adds: "Part of our vision and values is to be a community club so we jumped on an opportunity of having a professional football manager as a member to develop this idea."

It is certainly not a plan to attract new members. Makeham confirms that a waiting list is still in operation for a family membership that costs £985 annually.

The shouts of the boys in the main sports hall and the applause for the parents on the gantry must cause a moment of reflection for gentlemen of a certain age, witnessing a vibrant occasion at a club that seemed certain to die in the 1970s.

The battering of rain outside the modern hall emphasises the comfort and security of a club that survived "the day the roof fell in" when the pool was filled by debris from a collapse of the Victorian structure.

This was a dramatic sign of the frailty of the very fabric of a club whose membership was dwindling, whose boiler rarely worked and whose debts were accumulating.

"This is great," he says with a smile. The speaker is WH Mann - it seems uncommonly crude to address him as Bill - who has played the major role in the success story at the club. "It was about to close," he says of the dark seventies, before adding with a smile: "It could not be allowed to do so because I came every Monday, Wednesday and Friday."

The founder of financial company WH Mann, Bill threw himself professionally and financially into the Western Baths. "I even loaned some money," he says. "Mine, not my company's. This is now one of the most prosperous clubs in the country."

A cricket enthusiast who is also fond of rugby, how does Bill, who joined the club in 1943, feel about the birth of this youthful football team in Cranworth Street?

"Some clubs do not seem to welcome children but this one is designed to be friendly towards them. I was one myself once upon a time," says a man who admits to being in his 80th year.

The hall seems an unusual place, though, for McCall, once the coming coach in Scottish football, to be pursuing his vocation. He has not worked as a full-time manager since leaving Thistle in 2011 and now concedes he is missing the game at the highest level.

"I though my cv was pretty perfect for the Morton job," he says. The successful applicant was Kenny Shiels, the former Kilmarnock manager, who said all the jobs were being filled by Old Firm veterans.

"I probably missed out because I played with Rangers," says McCall with a chuckle. "I am not bitter but I have a notion to get back in. I have had two or three offers from Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore and I may just have to go abroad."

That would be an irony: a move to Asia for the coach who has just introduced the reality of a Western football team.

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