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Soccer program heads youths away from trouble

Former professional Andy McLaren, who has battled his own demons, started A&M Training to give youths in inner-city Glasgow, Scotland, a positive alternative to drugs and crime.

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    Andy McLaren (standing, center) works with disadvantaged youths at his nonprofit A&M Training program in Glasgow, Scotland.
    Courtesy of A&M Training
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Andy McLaren knows how mean the streets of Scotland's largest city can be.

He grew up on them, falling into the slipstream of substance abuse and social deprivation that give some areas of Glasgow unfortunate infamy. 

But he got out, carving out a moderately successful professional soccer career despite continuing to battle addiction along the way.

Now Mr. McLaren is busy trying to give children and young people the opportunity to steer clear of the kind of demons that some say stopped him from reaching the very top of his sport.

A youth initiative he co-founded, A&M Training, hosts 1,200 young people between the ages of 12 and 20 every week for free soccer training.

Statistics suggest that the sports programs run by his charity have helped reduce youth crime and disorder in certain areas by nearly 50 percent, says McLaren, a former winger for Dundee United, a team in the Scottish Premiership, the top professional league in Scotland. He has also been a member of the Scotland international team.

Like many of the disadvantaged youths with whom the native of the notorious Glasgow housing project Castlemilk now works, he fell prey to alcohol and drug abuse – a life story he chronicled in a 2008 autobiography, "Tormented: The Andy McLaren Story."

To help with the coaching, he has enlisted famous names from the Scottish soccer scene. Some continue to play professionally, but they all work for free at A&M Training.

The sessions are aimed at giving young people a viable alternative to activities that lead to problems such as alcoholism, gang violence, and racism. 

"For a lot of these young people, we’re the only chance they have, the only role models that they have in their life," McLaren says. "We need to make sure that we’re there for them to help them make the right life choices and to support them when they need it."

In addition to free soccer coaching, dance training and social education workshops are also provided.

McLaren says he believes young people in poor areas of Glasgow – a proud working-class city – are being priced out of the modern game of soccer. The sport's working-class roots are being lost, he says, as soaring costs making the game increasingly a middle-class preserve, leaving behind many youths whose parents can't afford to cough up the fees.

McLaren wants to spread his charity work across all of Scotland in hopes of tackling some of the country's social problems. Youth obesity and crime are problems throughout Scotland. By making sports more accessible, he says, the long-term benefits of grass-roots initiatives such as A&M Training will be seen in lower health-care and prison costs.

The work of A&M Training is now gaining recognition across Great Britain. The organization was one of just five to win a 2014 Guardian Charity Award. The awards, run by the Guardian newspaper, spotlight the efforts of smaller charities, whose work is often overshadowed by large organizations with more name recognition.

"I cannot believe the success that A&M has had already, and it’s extremely humbling to see all of the support that we have gained," says A&M Training CEO Robert McHarg, who co-founded the charity with McLaren. "I just want to keep expanding the work that we are doing so that we can help the communities that need it most."

In the long run, A&M might also develop gifted soccer players who would follow in the footsteps of McLaren and become professionals. But McLaren emphasizes a more important mission.

"It's a game that brings down social barriers," he told a Scottish national newspaper recently. "We have about 50 different nationalities [represented at A&M], and we don’t have any hassle with kids saying, ‘You come from there, and I come from here.’ They just want to play."

• To learn more visit http://www.aplusmtraining.com.

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