“Who’s bringing a ball? Who’s bringing bibs? Who’s bringing the wire cutters?”

For most young people playing football with their friends, the last question might seem a little odd. But not if you’re in Scotland.

Most youngsters around the world don’t have to sink to subterfuge in order to play a game of football with their friends but in Scotland, our next generation of footballers have no plausible alternative.

For around two decades, the number of free football pitches in Scotland has been decreased dramatically. Facilities that were once free to play on have since been privatised, rented and closed off to the public, leaving children and teenagers with nowhere to play.

Free pitches still exist but the reality is that these are few and far between these days. The majority are privately-owned and cost money to book out and play on. Money that not everybody has.

This creates a real problem for Scottish football. Whether someone is training to become a professional player, or simply playing for fun, booking out an entire pitch is the only way to improve your skills.

Obviously, this has an exclusionary effect. Young people from deprived backgrounds simply cannot afford to pay every time they want a kickabout with their friends.

Ask any professional footballer the best way to develop your talent and the reply will always be the same: practice. By denying kids the chance to play on pitches that were previously publicly-owned, there is now a real risk that Scottish players could be missing out.

Kieran Green is the former head of Youth Football Scotland, an organisation that specialise in the development and organisation of youth football at a grassroots level across the country. And he believes that the dearth of free pitches is having a hugely detrimental effect on young players.

“I would say we’ve lost a generation. At the moment there seems to be a decent amount of young players coming through, especially in the Premiership, but that isn’t the case in youth football,” says Kieran.

“The standard of boys club football is not good to be honest and I think that generation of players now, aged between 13 and 16, aren’t fulfilling their potential. You don’t want to slate these guys because they’re still young players but compared to ten years ago, the standard has dropped significantly.

“Since the introduction of Astroturf pitches in Scotland - that seems to be when the downfall happened. Kids can’t just go and play anymore. The bit of grass they used to play on was replaced with an Astroturf pitch with a lock on the fence.

“In terms of proper facilities for teams to play games, I don’t actually know of any, especially in Edinburgh, that are free of charge.”

It didn’t use to be this way. The drop in the number of free-to-play facilities has gone hand in hand with the decline of the national team. Scotland haven’t qualified for the finals of a tournament since 1998 – around the same time private pitches became more and more prevalent.

Up until the 1990s, free pitches were abundant and commonplace. Kids could play at their school once their classes had finished, or they could have a kickabout in council-owned pitches nearby. Those days are gone now, and the blame rests with one man: Tony Blair.

Blair’s Labour government may not have introduced the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), but it’s this government that is associated with its widespread rollout. Councils could not afford to build facilities on their own but with the help of private investment, state-of-the-art pitches with artificial surfaces sprung up all over the country. The only problem was that the gates were locked.

This created a problem for kids who had fallen in love with the beautiful game. They had three options; they could not play at all, they could find the money to book a pitch for an hour, or they could sneak in. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most youngsters choose the latter option.

“There’s plenty of things we used to do,” remembers Kieran.

“We used to jump the fence or find a hole in the fence. If there wasn’t a hole in the fence, you’d make a hole. Or you’d literally break the padlock on the gate because there’s nowhere else for you to play.

“Every 3G pitch is locked and if it’s not locked, it’s being used by a club who are paying through the nose for it. I think this is fairly typical of the way most kids are playing football at the moment.”

Chris*, a sixteen-year-old from the west end of Glasgow, confirmed that this is the case.

“When me and my friends go to play football, we go to a pitch but you need to book it,” he says.

“We can’t afford it so we sneak in, but if we can’t then we have to kick down a fence to get in. Every time we’d go back the hole would be covered up with mesh and zip ties, so we’d bring scissors and cut them so we could get in.

“There’s nowhere affordable that we can play, and definitely nowhere that’s free. There isn’t much for young people to do round here but free pitches would be a big help.”

Glasgow Sport – the council department responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of pitches in Scotland’s biggest city – manage over 100 pitches, yet just seven can be used for free. And even then, this is only from 3-5pm, Monday to Friday. By the time kids leave school and get to the nearest of the seven facilities offering this service, they will be lucky to play for an hour.

A spokeswoman for Glasgow Sport said: “Glasgow Sport is currently in the process of carrying out a consultation with local communities and football clubs regarding the pricing of football bookings within the city. The first stage of this was an online survey last year.

“All comments were taken on board and these will allow us to develop more proposals following discussions with focus groups over the coming weeks, including local football groups and clubs from all over Glasgow. Discussions have been productive, and we look forward to developing our new pricing strategy in due course.”

Not only are individual footballers and children being let down by the lack of available facilities, but small, amateur clubs are also struggling to survive – something that could prove disastrous for the grassroots development of our national game.

“It’s definitely put financial strains on clubs,” asserts Kieran.

“Because the price of booking a 3G pitch is so high, nobody is using it. Which then means the facilities are losing money, because no one is using it because it’s so expensive, which means they have to put the price up.

“If something doesn’t change soon then youth clubs are going to fold and there’s going to be less people playing football because there’s nowhere to play it. Players are going to leave because they’re not playing games, because clubs can’t afford to rent a pitch, and clubs will go under.

“If the facilities don’t change then it’s only going to go downhill. There are a lot of teams already struggling and slipping away.”

Gone are the days when a group of kids could simply go to their local park to kick a ball around. In many public parks, you can’t even play any ball games at all. Aberdeen City Council, to their credit, started tearing down these signs in 2015 in an attempt to encourage more kids to play sport in free, public spaces. Sadly, though, this example has not been followed elsewhere.

How long can we continue to bemoan the prospects of young Scottish footballers before addressing the problem at its source? If kids have nowhere to play and develop, they aren’t going to improve. It’s as simple as that. Some of the greatest players our nation has ever produced have grown up in circumstances where they could never have afforded to pay to train.

How many players are we losing today? The unpalatable truth is that some children are priced out of playing football, and because there is no alternative, they stop playing the sport. Talent is squandered and remains unfulfilled. Giving children a place to play for free may not lead to Scotland becoming world-beaters, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

*Name changed to protect source's identity