Growing up, it was far too easy to take football for granted. Strips laid out, training cones meticulously placed, the click clack of studs marching their way onto the pitch - mornings down the public park are a way of life for so many.

"They're there and they're always there," the late Tommy Burns famously once said of the Celtic support, but it's a sentiment just as applicable to the droves of volunteers, without whom there would be no such thing as the grassroots game in Scotland. Anyone who's ever kicked a ball knows someone who devotes what seems like most of their life to ensuring kids have the means and opportunity to play football; a rare and special breed you'd swear could somehow extend a day beyond 24 hours just to be coach, secretary, fundraiser, or whatever else is required of them. But devotion only goes so far when the cost of the game is spiralling, and hard-up families struggle to keep pace with the cost of living crisis.

John Love is chairman at Drumsagard Football Academy in Cambuslang and is becoming increasingly concerned for the future of his club, and others like it. "At our last count it was £37,000-a-year to run the club," he revealed. "And that's without even buying a strip. That’s just training and match fees. It costs us about £500-600-a-month to run one age group. You’re trying to keep your fees as low as possible for the parents. I’ve got 30-odd coaches, 20-odd child protection officers and sports injury people. They all do it for nothing.

"A lot of parents are struggling – electricity, gas, fuel. A few years ago in South Lanarkshire, you paid a yearly fee, and you got your facilities for free, so then you could come and go with parents financially. Many of them are from deprived areas in Cambuslang and have two or three kids, it’s £75-a-month and lots can’t afford it. There really should be grants because we can’t tell people to come for nothing. Other parents would ask ‘why am I paying?’"

Unfortunately, such difficulties tend to lead to the same outcome, and it's one being repeated up and down the country, from the youngest ages through to adult amateur football.

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“I’ve had to fold a few age groups – the 2012s, 2009s, 2006s, 2004s, 2003s and 2002s," Love admitted. "Numbers are dwindling because of the cost, especially when they start playing 11-a-side because we have to put the fees up to £40-a-month to cover the parks and referee.  That's kids hanging about the street now that would be at training. I used to take the U16s in to train on a Friday night to make sure they weren't sitting in a bus shelter with a bottle of Buckfast. You get them in early, teach discipline and give them a structure. We get them at five years old and when they grow up, they've taken all that on board, and they turn out decent young boys and girls.

"But some people are struggling to afford it. When the kids leave school and start work, the parents might say ‘you need to pay for your football now’, a lot of them don’t want to pay it. What makes me laugh is we go to meetings with the SYFA; they’re on about tackling obesity in children, telling clubs we need to get kids out and active, away from devices. We’re doing all that voluntarily and yet it costs us £37,000-a-year.“How much is obesity costing the NHS? We’re trying to help get the kids active but have to pay for the privilege of doing it.”

It's no exaggeration to suggest that as grassroots teams cease to exist, talent could be lost to the game forever. If it weren’t for Drumsagard providing his first steps in the game, 19-year-old Cole McKinnon may not have scored on his senior Rangers debut last season. There are, no doubt, thousands of clubs with similar success stories, and Love ponders where such prospects might end up if families continue to be priced out of participation.

"When you go into deprived areas, there's wee gems in there and you could turn their lives around," he said. "But they're not getting the opportunity because their parents can't afford to send them to football."

Not only are facilities proving too expensive, Love feels there's simply not enough of them. Higher prices in Glasgow prohibit the club from venturing too far from the South Lanarkshire council area to play matches and they have been frustrated in attempts to secure their own facilities, being unable to get council bosses on board despite securing backing from Sportscotland.

"The biggest mistake I made was calling the club Drumsagard," Love said. "Drumsagard is a more affluent area in Cambuslang and I feel you are stopped from getting grants because of it, even though a lot of our kids are from places like Westburn and Halfway. If I'd called it Westburn or Halfway, the grants we'd get would be unbelievable.

"The long-term outlook concerns me. I've said a number of times, if prices and the cost of living keep going up and people can't afford it, we'd need to fold the club. I ran the club well, financially, to keep our head above water during the pandemic. We used to take the kids out at Christmas, we'd subsidise tournaments at the UK and abroad - Holland, Italy, Spain. We try to subsidise the kids as much as possible, but all that is out the window now.

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"You can't hold fundraisers because people don't have the money to go to race nights anymore. For kit, you're asking local businesses to put £500 towards an age group and they get the sponsorship for a year, but I've still got to put money in to subsidise and get the kit. Long term, if things don't improve..."

Love trails off but it's a sentence he doesn't really need to finish. His anxieties are shared across the city at Pollok United, the Club of the Year at the 2022 Glasgow Sport Awards, who have been operating Nethercraigs Sports Complex as part of a community activation pilot and are now in talks to take it over from Glasgow Life, the organisation which manages sports facilities in the city. Similar negotiations are taking place for the likes of Drumchapel United and Shettleston Community Sports Trust to assume control of the Donald Dewar Centre and Greenfield Football Centre.  Exciting prospects for community clubs, no doubt, but increasing costs make it an increasingly daunting venture.

“We’re being asked to run a facility that previously was losing – or received a subsidy – of £250,000-a-year. So, we’re going to make that work?" Gordon Keenan, Pollok's chief-executive, said wryly. "Add to that, the cost of living and specifically the utility costs. We’ve received a lot of support and co-operation from the council, Glasgow Life and, in the football context, the Scottish FA. We’re all looking at ways to reduce the cost. The big one for everybody just now came out of nowhere. I started in August and they had an electricity budge, including floodlight costs, at about £25,000-a-year. You could treble that number if you went to the market now. We have a procured purchase with the council but it’s about to run out, and you can bet those electricity and gas costs would go up £70,000. That’s horrendous.

The Herald: Pollok United are a strong presence in the communityPollok United are a strong presence in the community (Image: Pollok United)

“The SFA have introduced a sustainability scheme, and that allows clubs to consider bidding and the SFA will contribute up to half to allow clubs to convert from halogen to LED lighting. That’s a significant step from the SFA, and fair play to them. Cameron Watt, the SFA’s facilities manager, has been a trojan, a real hard worker looking to assist community organisations. The SFA are offering half the costs, then we must find money from other sources. We’re in discussion with Glasgow Life and the council about where we can identify other money, because obviously community organisations don’t really have it."

Picking up awards and exploring ambitious expansions does not mean Pollok haven't faced the same issues plaguing others, however. Parents have struggled with finances and, consequently, age groups have folded. But what's less discussed is how many grassroots clubs are about more than just the football. Pollok also manage the Dennis Donnelly Centre and the Corkerhill Community Hub, which offers everything from walking football to sewing classes.

“At Pollok, we run combinations with other groups," Keenan said. "We’ve got a refugee homework and football project, in conjunction with local schools, but we’re short of finance. I’m in the midst of making an application to the Scottish Refugee Council for a funding bid under ‘new Scots’, because you can’t run a team or incorporate people unless somebody pays something towards those costs.

“Your average refugee gets £5 a day. There isn’t anything spare there to allow them to integrate. I’ve got to commend the education sector, people are trying. Nobody is trying to cut anybody out but we’re all there chasing funding to keep the lights on."

And therein lies the problem. Every club is chasing coveted funding, but there's only so much to go around.

Keenan said: "We’ve made all the standard bids to the standard agencies – the National Lottery, the Robertson Trust, Sportscotland – but it’s very competitive. The Glasgow Community Fund had a budget for three years at £49m, we’re a recipient of that and it expires in March next year. They’ve advised us they’ve received bids in excess of £149m for a £49m fund. The number of applications from organisations like us has gone up exponentially. It’s putting a lot of pressure on."

It's pressure that ultimately falls on the volunteers, the lifeblood of clubs and, ultimately, the game itself. And no matter the level of commitment, eventually, it takes a toll. It’s difficult not to wonder just how sustainable this is long term.

“You do see the pressures on families," Keenan said. "I’ve got to commend the people of Pollok; we’ve got about 80 volunteer coaches who come out every week. You can see, physically, the strain people are under. It begins to affect things like travelling to games, because of petrol expenses and all the other add-ons.

“We’re constantly looking at ways to mitigate that, but it’s very, very hard when inflation is running like this and people’s wages are static, on top of all the other family pressures people have got. We’ve brought some people on to our board to try and use their business skills to help us develop sponsorship and look at other ideas around resources, but there’s no quick answer. I’m reluctant to ascribe blame, because, frankly, the only blame you can ascribe is down at Westminster.”