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Island Association reconstructs leagues to boost player numbers

An island football association has restructured their junior leagues in a bid to tackle a decline in youth players.

The Lewis and Harris Youth Football Association (LHYFA) will return to a format of three 11-aside leagues at grassroots level; with divisions at U14, U16, and U18 level.

The organisation originally ran in this format, before switching in 2016 to align with the player pathways set out by the Scottish Football Association (SFA).

Alasdair Dunlop, chairperson of the LHYFA said: “The main reasons were some clubs felt there was too big a gap between U15s and U18s for players to step up and we were losing some players.

Also, after a few years of only having two leagues we were aware we had more young players coming up and we thought we would return to having three leagues and U14s, U16s, and U18s meant less of a jump to the next level.”

There will now be 19 teams playing at junior level, compared to last season’s 11, meaning that as many as 88 more players could be starting in full-sized games.

Though Dunlop admitted it was not a unanimous decision by member clubs, he said it was one that has ultimately been accepted.

Stornoway United U16 manager Seumas Maciver said: “I am feeling very positive about this change of age groups for our youth football leagues.

Having more kids playing 11-aside football is important for their development as players.

In particular, this enables them to get familiar at U14 level with bigger pitches, goals and how the game changes compared to smaller-sized festivals and tournaments.

Additionally, I feel like we were losing a lot of 16-year-olds after U15 level as they were unable to compete with the three-year groups playing at U18 level.”

The previous restructuring saw more regular smaller pitch festival-based games brought in for younger U9, U11 and U13 age groups, with the past format seeing only an U12 section that was played over summers.

Keith Bray, former chairperson for the LHYFA said: “ At the time this seemed to address issues at the lack of opportunity at younger age groups, overall numbers and quality of play at younger ages.

This also helped facilitate more girls into youth football, linking with SFA pathways and went hand in hand with development squads at U13s and U15s who regularly competed on the mainland.

This has coincided with six local youth players making it into the professional ranks within Scottish football.

However, the SFA pathways have moved on and if these new expanded and tweaked [LHYFA] structures have the long-term interests of developing boys and girls football at their heart, then football can go from strength to strength in Lewis and Harris.”

The LHYFA now have formalised links with Ross County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle, with the likes of Matthew Wright, Adam Mackinnon, James Graham and Bray’s son, Keith Junior, featuring in the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL).

Meanwhile, ten girls travel to the mainland to play for either club at youth level, where they hope to follow the example of current Caley Thistle midfielder and Lewis native Kayleigh Mackenzie.

The island’s oldest club, Stornoway Athletic, dates back to 1891, while eight other teams compete at senior level in the Lewis and Harris Football League.

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