When Kenny Shiels walks into the media room at Rugby Park, all of the attention turns to him. The boys, still wearing their training gear and changing out of their football boots, are rapt. "How many are Celtic fans," asks Shiels. "None I hope. And Rangers fans? None I hope. You should all be Kilmarnock fans." They are all too hesitant to respond, even the bolder ones.
Shiels tells them to gather their chairs round in a semi-circle and begins a question and answer session. It takes a few moments to warm up, but soon the boys are firing questions at him. They all concern football, but he turns most of the answers round into lessons, about teamwork, inspiration, values, discipline. At one stage, he sharply tells them to look at him while he's talking, and they all obey. By the end, when they are posing with the Scottish Communities League Cup that Kilmarnock won last year, there is a genuine rapport between Shiels and the boys. "You're good kids," he says, as they rush off to get the bus back to the local school, Grange Academy.
The visit yesterday was part of Kilmarnock's community initiative, with coaches Paul McDonald and Alan Mahood bringing children into the club for lessons that use football as a means to learn literacy, numeracy and other academic subjects, about health and fitness, about social initiatives, and about crime prevention. At one stage, Shiels asks the boys if any of them carry knives, or know people who do, and congratulates them for saying, "no".
"They come in one day a week and it's been enlightening for them, as well as the people working with them," Shiels says. "It lets them experience the club, which is a huge focal point within the community. They are learning through football. It's something that enthuses the kids, and without the football they can sometimes switch off. The popularity the game carries makes them feel excited by coming into these programmes. There are so many things that the football clubs can do, ourselves, Motherwell, St Johnstone, they can have a mutual connection with the community."
The initiative is one of a series the club has run since winning the League Cup last March, including taking the trophy on a tour of almost 100 schools in Ayrshire to date. It is run in conjunction with the tournament's sponsor, the Scottish government's Wave of Support national Trophy Tour, which has engaged with more than 6000 young people across the country so far, at 23 schools, 37 youth sports clubs and 17 SPL and SFL clubs, with the figure expected to reach 15,000 by March, the time of the final of the competition.
Shared values are prominent, since the initiatives are designed to inspire young children, to use football as a means of education, but also to help disadvantaged youngsters in deprived areas who can feel marginalised. At a time when Scottish football is trying to restore its standing, and reconnect with supporters who have become increasingly disillusioned, community initiatives are central to rebuilding the relationships between teams and their fans. The game carries such a high-profile, and is so influential by its lasting presence in so many lives, that it should take advantage of its popularity for worthy causes.
"If you can imagine how much the football clubs means to the people of this community, it's important we reciprocate and let them see that we care about them as well," says Shiels. "We got 15,000 supporters twice at Hampden, a third of the local population, in the months of January and March. After they went out of their way to support us, this was a good way to give back our gratitude. Kilmarnock has become a commuter town with the loss of local industries, and as a result of the access to Glasgow with the motorway, a lot of people live here and work in Glasgow. I'm aware of the void and lack of spirit that might evolve from that. It takes a bit of the heartbeat away and I feel we have a duty to replace that, work with the people and provide entertainment as well as community programmes."
Shiels is passionate about the good that football can bring to people and communities, as a force for social change as well as education and fostering good relations. The 11 boys are mesmerised as he talks about his own life in the game, and again when they pose with the League Cup for pictures. Having seen both his own sons grow up playing football and being attached to clubs, the manager is convinced that the sport can play an important role in children's development.
"There's a definite correlation between academic and football skills," he says. "I always say to parents that the first thing we promise them is that if your boy comes into the academy, if he doesn't get a contract at 16, he will certainty have benefited from our programme. It's important that we help them to become better young people, as well as better footballers."