Founded in January 2014 as a girl’s only club aiming to provide football for all ages and abilities with a focus on providing an elite player pathway, Central Football Academy is still yet to celebrate its second birthday.
Despite its youth, the club has expanded at a rapid rate and it now boasts over 20 teams with no less than eight Scotland Youth Internationals within their ranks: and it has no intention of stopping the development yet.
Having been under pressure to set up a boys programme in a similar vein to the girls’ setup, The Academy has finally been able to introduce a boys’ section: Central Boys Football Academy.
However, as highlighted by Ian Dibdin, Central Football Academy’s Head of Football, this was not always an option.
When asked about the details of the club’s expansion to include both boys’ and girls’ sections, he said, “Until recently we avoided the setting up of a boys section… There were many reasons for this: quality of coaching and commitment, but the main one for me was the player pathway.
“I was being approached by individual teams but collectively it was eventually looking like the pathway was becoming a realistic option. So, in line with our Scottish FA Quality Mark policies and procedures, the coaching staff were put in place and we started the recruitment of players.
“In many ways this process was straight forward. By bringing the individuals together we were soon able to form a boys section which allowed players to play from five years old through to adult.”
Ian emphasised the importance of creating a pathway for players as a reason for expanding the club.
“The creation of a player pathway was always the key. Too many clubs focus on individual teams and individual players, almost to the cost of their player development programme.
“[The player pathway] at Central takes the shape of pre-school classes, our C Leagues which provides training and playing each Saturday for primary one and two kids [and] our Academy Kickz programme [where] we focus on primary three-five school kids.
“Teams start at under sevens and we run through to adult. Central have over 20 teams at the moment; next season we are likely to be at the 30 mark.”
Although Central Football Academy is still in a period of transition and the long-term benefits of the club’s expansion are yet to become clear, Dibdin believes that there are already signs that the change has been a success.
When asked about the ways in which the club is benefiting from the expansion, he said: “It is too early to say. However, the club is vibrant and maybe this is the gauge of success.
“Our players are keen to play, the coaches bringing in challenging sessions and seeing skills transferred onto the pitch. Maybe that's what it's all about and why we are in it in the first place.
“Certainly the parent base has grown and with it the skillsets they bring. We have been able to tap into these professionals and utilised them for the benefit of the club. Plenty of thanks should go out but typical of our parents they have been willing to contribute without benefit to themselves.”
Overlap and interaction between girls’ and boys’ sections is something which many young players at other clubs won’t experience. However, Ian explains that at Central Football Academy, the mix of players on the books is something which is utilised for the benefit and development of the players.
“I believe that both boys and girls benefit from mixed training and playing. We regularly mix training with our 1st Girls team (seniors) and the U16's Boys. The sessions are both intense and fun but it brings a mutual respect for each other. I think the girls develop their technical skills faster in this environment.
“Our younger groups have girls who play in the boys teams and at U11's we have entered girls’ teams to play in the Development League. Previously this has developed the girls’ teams’ speed and physicality. When returning to play the girls’ sides the benefits are clear to see.”
Central Football Academy are certainly unique in terms of their roots and expansion to date. However, Ian sees the club’s philosophy and the way it looks to learn from and adopt strategies from the best as the main aspects which make Central Football Academy different to other clubs.
“It's easy to say that we wanted to provide football for all and we do that, but it was important that we offered an elite program which would compare to the best available in the country and beyond.
“The support structure for this philosophy was to look at the best and adopt what we thought would benefit our programme. Our thinking was that the higher the level of coaching the better the standard would be; not only to the elite players but right through the club.
“Younger players would be inspired by our older players. What could be more inspirational to a player when they not only watch Central players pull on a Scotland top and play for the national team, but train next to them in Central colours and ask their advice, or discuss the game?”
Ian points to a specific visit to America as a key moment which influenced his philosophy which would be implemented into Central Football Academy.
“After travelling to the US my ideology was changed forever. Visiting different soccer programmes and seeing the American children in action was an eye opener. I watched five year old girls producing a set of skills of ball control which was fantastic: I didn't believe my eyes.
“I'm open-minded enough to look beyond the Scottish borders and see other strategies to deal with player development. Who are the current Women's World Cup champions? They must be doing something right.”
The club’s philosophy appears to be paying dividends with the girls’ and boys’ sections earning silverware and enjoying successful seasons.
“The girls section have had a great season: Two League Championships, Two League Cups, Two Loch Lomond Cups (under 15s & 17s), Nottingham Cup and a Scottish Cup final to look forward to.
“For the boys we won a pre-season trophy with the U15's. The youth boys’ sides are about a third of the way through their season, with a couple enjoying good cup runs and all doing well in the league.”
In line with their expansion to date and incredible ambition, Central Football Academy are looking to build on their momentum and continue their multifaceted development.
When asked about the club’s plans for future expansion, Ian said: “We are looking at working with the local council to develop our facilities; we see the potential of one of our venues to increase its use.
“The venue would require a good amount of investment but we are an ambitious club and in line with our club motto 'Imagine...Believe...Achieve', we will not give up until the project is there for everyone to see.”
The club is even looking to expand beyond the realms of football, although the football remains a key area for future development, as Ian explains: “As part of our Scottish FA Quality Mark Community application we are looking for alternative sports to come under the Central banner; we are looking at two clubs. Although at early stages, at this time it is certainly in our plans.
“On the football front we will continue to grow the numbers. We want to provide football for all and we will encourage all youngsters to come along to join us. Amongst them will be the stars of the future and we want them to shine here in Central.”
If Central Football Academy’s growth in under two years of existence is anything to go by, the sky is the limit for this incredibly ambitious club.
Given the club’s success to date and plans for the future, do not be surprised if many of the future stars of Scottish Men’s and Women’s football will have come up through the ranks at Central Football Academy.