It is never uninteresting to assess how student sports clubs have grown by the season’s halfway point. Unlike professional clubs, the inevitable turnover of players, as incoming freshers replace outgoing fourth-years, means it is often tricky to truly foresee how well the new season will go. Yet Director of the Football Club Stuart Milne talks about promoting freshers with such conviction, that it is easy to shed any Hansen-esque reservations about youthful success. What, after all, is the use in doubting players who ultimately represent, as Milne puts it, “the future direction of the club for years to come”?
In terms of both future potential and current impact, then, first-years are perhaps more integral to the Football Club than to any other major sports club in St Andrews. Contacted by Milne at the earliest possible stage – as soon as conditional offers to study at St Andrews are made – any whiff of an interest in football is sufficient for the Club to reach out and advertise itself. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that some thirty freshers attended the pre-season training camp late last summer, to Milne’s evident delight. Such commitment, from students who at the time weren’t technically students at all, is perhaps the ultimate testament to the Club’s willingness to operate on the very threshold of its means.
Such youthful influence doesn’t merely consist in quantity, however, but also quality: where many of the Club’s major success stories are concerned this season, freshers have still played a prominent role. The Men’s 3rd team sit comfortably atop BUCS league 8A, with some two-thirds of their squad being first-years, a proportion conceivably unmatched at BUCS-level among all sports club in the Auld Grey Toon. Just as impressively, the women’s 1st team, who lost “loads” of players in the summer according to Milne, are into the last 16 of the UK-wide BUCS Trophy, beating the University of Manchester’s 1st team 2-0 in Manchester to progress. It is often easy to read too much into individual results in football, but such a result speaks for itself. The University of Manchester is, by some way, the biggest university in the UK in terms of student population; St Andrews is a place where you can barely leave your flat without bumping into someone you know. For a team that small and containing that many freshers to pull off a result like that, is simply outstanding.
Yet, although the Club’s playing cohort has changed significantly this year, the pervasive sense gleaned from talking to Milne is that the Club as a whole has changed significantly, too. Just as the number of teams has increased from seven to nine – with a new men’s 6th team complementing a new women’s 3rd side – so the number of training sessions has increased accordingly. The men’s 1st team currently train four times a week, not including their two matches and video-analysis session; of these, two sessions are technical and two are strength-and-conditioning. Lower down the Club hierarchy, the men’s 4th team now attend – a change made on almost the same day this article was written – two technical sessions a week, an apt reflection of their newfound status as a BUCS side.
For all the changes this year, however, it would be wholly misguided not to acknowledge the Club’s pre-existing set-up, especially the coaching. Milne himself has been Director of Football since January 2011; the first group of freshers he coached now long-since graduates. The level of qualification among all coaches at the club is strikingly high, with extensive experience at professional youth level seemingly par for the course. Clubs such as East Fife, Dundee and Dundee United are among coaches’ previous employers, with Dundee United frequently making use of the University’s enviable facilities to train. Indeed, such is the quality of coaching provided at St Andrews, it is entirely possible to confuse it with Dundee United training; something the author of this piece knows all too well (the fact that Dundee United train in bright orange kit and St Andrews train in navy blue is totally irrelevant).
By the same token, acknowledgement of the Club’s pre-existing coaching set-up demands acknowledgement of the Club’s pre-existing players. The men’s 2nd team have narrowly missed out on promotion for several seasons now, but their presence a point from top spot in BUCS 7A – with a game in hand – suggests this could finally be the year for their older members. They are also into the knockout stages of the BUCS Conference Plate, convincingly victorious in every single group game. The women’s 2nd team, meanwhile, lie third in BUCS 2A yet level on points with first place; a tantalising state of affairs for all concerned.
Perhaps the true secret to Club’s major growth this year, then, is a combination of old and new. At the very time the Club set-up could hardly be more well-established – as Milne says, “one of the best university football programmes in the UK” – an unusually high number of freshers have arisen to take emphatic advantage of it. There has long-since been a player pathway at the Football Club; the key change this year is quite how many have chosen to tread that path.
Some things, though, never change. Saturday Fife League continues to flourish, as ever. The away-day antics, free from the relative pressure of BUCS – not to mention free from the relative supervision of team coaches – are the stuff of St Andrews footballing legend. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the Club’s thriving alumni network is largely fuelled by the demand for fresh Fife League anecdotes. Milne himself admits he leaves the social side of the club entirely to the players themselves, admirably and justifiably trusting the players to have a great time, misdemeanour-free. For the freshers joining the Football Club this year, then, they could hardly hope to have joined at a better time. And at Club socials – post-match in Rascals Bar on Wednesday nights – a better time is something they could hardly hope to have.