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Small contribution to the 'Largs Mafia' cause did not go unnoticed by the game's capo di tutti capo

To the crop of teenagers now thankfully getting their opportunities throughout the senior Scottish game, asking who the Largs Mafia were might seem to them like one of those odd questions thrown at the Mastermind chair.

They may be blissfully unaware that the managers or coaches shunting them into first-team games to help shore up the rickety financial nature of Scottish football might well have been influenced one way or the other by that so-called Mafia. Largs, admittedly, is perhaps better known for its bracing air, its neat prom, its ice-cream parlours and the pebbled beach from which the late Jimmy Johnstone embarked on a sailing adventure of survival long before The Life of Pi was heard of. But up on the windy plateau above the town, the coaching environment of the Inverclyde National Sporting Centre, established in the late fifties, created, not just countless numbers of coaches through the years, but also drew savage criticism from the tabloids who gleefully portrayed the tracksuits surrounding the traffic cones on the field there as a coven of witches brewing up a potion that would turn flesh and blood into choruses of performing marionettes.

I am reminded of all this in learning of the death of Roy Small at the age of 84. He was one of the original Largs coaches and a mainstay in its growing influence, and who, because he became an eloquent performer on BBC in both radio and television, drew more attention to his background in coaching than the others, until Andy Roxburgh came along to bear the brunt of the crude mockery.

Highly respected within his profession as a teacher and lecturer on education, Small was also renowned as a football coach both here and abroad, coaching the Scotland youth professional teams and attaining a position on FIFA's coaching panel which he held between 1972-83. That record meant nothing to the critics of the SFA's policy of promoting coaching certification as the passport to advancement in the game.

There was an historical pattern to the criticism which exists even to this day. As the public perceived the performances of our national team in particular, but also the quality of football in general, as deteriorating from some almost mythical norm firmly established in the national psyche, the guns were turned on Largs. Coaching was stifling the individual, negating the flowering of personal skills, turning players into robots, flouting the environment that produced a Jimmy Johnstone and a Jim Baxter. Then Steve Archibald, wishing to be "fast-tracked" for the managerial post at Espanyol, but rejected by them as he did not have the appropriate certification from Scotland, lashed out, using the phrase "Largs Mafia" for perhaps the first time. The interesting corollary to that was, of course, that the SFA coaching certificate was now being globally accepted. That fact was conveniently ignored.

As Walter Smith pointedly remarked to me when he was at the SFA: "The problem with many of the academies is that the boys going into them are just not good enough."

Football was no longer the incredible life force that encouraged boys to play the game from morn to night with a reluctant break for a 'jeely piece'. The trail from tanner ba' pyrotechnics up a close, to walking out eventually as a professional player had gone, vanished forever.

Jimmy Johnstone told me: "I used to play in the parks and the streets until it was too dark, then I would play up and down our hall, making a hell of a noise doing it and the old woman living underneath us never once complained!'

Is it any wonder then that if you no longer have teeming thousands of lads paying football in every nook and cranny they could find, that the emergence of an individual genius like Jinky and Baxter would now be considered a miracle?

Asking boys to dribble round traffic cones did not lead to the dearth of the great individual. The improvement of social conditions has paradoxically diluted the pull of the game. Perhaps the situation would be downright chaotic had a Largs influence not existed to pull in all the different strands of development. We would have been left with a free-for-all. As the rest of the world changed, we would have been left wondering why it was becoming more difficult to beat even a minnow nation.

And since Craig Brown, former schoolteacher like Small, emerged as Scotland's manager, through his own professional club experience, but also as a dedicated enthusiast of the coaching ethos at Largs, it is worth bearing in mind his record in comparison with the great Jock Stein in that same role:

Stein: P68, W30, D13, L25.

Brown: P69, W31, D18, L20.

A perfectly credible record that surely eliminates the need to throw scorn on that hillside in Largs. For he is not alone in attesting to the value of a visit to the coast.

Take the sentiments of Sir Alex Ferguson. He wrote to Roy Small before his death thanking him ". . . for all your help to me as a young fledgling under your care with Scotland's youth teams. Also for guiding me through my formative years at Largs as I set out on a coaching career. There were probably many examples of your influence and intervention with other Alex Ferguson's, and it must give you enormous satisfaction to see how well some of them have done."

If there was indeed a mafia, then these surely are the words of the capo di tutti capo.

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