“At the very start of the season I sat down with the team and I said to them that I’d consider it a successful season if I could say at the end of it that they’d all improved as footballers. It didn’t matter whether we won all our games or lost all our games.”
So says Graeme McFarlane, coach of Milngavie U16s. At the beginning of last season he, along with fellow coach and club secretary Mark Ewing, set about building a squad from scratch; Milngavie were a new team entering the league for the first time.
Unsurprisingly, expectations going into the season were modest, but remarkably at the end of the 18 game season Milngavie were four points clear at the top and crowned Central Scotland FA Division C Champions.
It was an incredible achievement considering, as Mark Ewing remembers, at the start of the campaign they were barely able to field a team, let alone compete for silverware.
“There had been a Milngavie 2002 but it had folded early the season before, so we hadn’t been competing but the club wanted to get a team going at that age group again,” he said. “A couple of the boys who had been with us previously came back, but at the start of the season we were really struggling to get a viable squad together in terms of numbers. Right at the start of the season we had probably five boys who had never played for a club before, so they were coming in to structured football at U16 which is a huge ask.
“We didn’t have time for any pre-season matches, so we went straight into the League Cup right at the start of the season, sometimes introducing some boys to each other in the changing room before we went out to play, and we were well beaten in every game. It was a real learning curve for us.”
It was a difficult start to life for the new Milngavie squad, but as the league campaign got underway and the players became familiar with each other and what was expected of them on the pitch, their fortunes slowly began to turn.
McFarlane recalls: “We lost the first [league match] and we drew the second one but things seemed to gather momentum and the belief grew.
“We got them a bit more organised on the pitch so they knew what they were doing – at least three or four of them had never played on an 11-a-side pitch before; they’d never actually been in an organised team playing an organised game, so we had to try and get them sorted with some shaping and knowledge of where they were meant to be depending on where the ball was.
“They just cottoned onto it and it snowballed. They won a game, and then they won another and then the next one and they just kept on winning games and the confidence within them grew at an amazing rate.”
Whilst the coaching certainly played a big part in the transformation of a team that got thrashed every week (“There were a lot of 6-2s and 5-1s in those early League Cup games,” remembers McFarlane) to league champions, both coaches were quick to play down their role in the success, citing the players’ attitude and character as the main reason for Milngavie’s accomplishments.
Ewing said: “It was quite clear that the boys we did have – although some of them were inexperienced – really wanted to be there. They worked incredibly hard at training and bit by bit they really got it together.”
McFarlane added: “There’s been a real team spirit and it’s very much come from the players I think.
“I’ve been coaching for a while and this was a brilliant experience. Young boys who were keen to learn and listened to what you were saying and then you’d watch them go out on the pitch and they would do these things.”
And whilst they didn’t become all-conquering overnight, Ewing recalls how he slowly realised that his side were more than just making up the numbers in the league.
“Given the start that we had, I thought we’d be going into the league struggling at the bottom to be perfectly honest,” he said. “The aim was to try and not be last in the league. Then all of a sudden we found we were winning games. Confidence was growing, guys were working hard and it was the turn of the year and all of a sudden we were in the mix in the league. I didn’t think we would win it but I thought we were actually going to end up in the right half of the table at the end.”
McFarlane also discussed the moment he realised the boys could achieve something special.
“Our home game with Stirling Albion was the game where I thought we might be in with a real chance of doing something,” he said. “They were top of the league at the time. The very first game of the season we played them and they beat us 4-3. At the time I thought there wasn’t actually very much between us, and when we played our home game against them about two-thirds of the way through the season and we beat them 2-1 I thought we might have a chance.
“The players all knew too. They knew that beating the team who – at that time – were comfortably top of the league laid down a marker that we could compete with these guys.”
And so it proved. Momentum and results were going in their favour, and before long Milngavie were in poll position in the league and on the verge of the unlikeliest of title wins.
“It became quite a job to keep [the players’] feet on the ground and to concentrate on the fact that we were here just to play our football and that anything else that happens was a bonus,” remembers McFarlane.
Perhaps no game epitomises Milngavie’s season than the match the league title was finally confirmed.
Trailing North Kelvin Utd 2-0 at half time, there was a danger the wheels could come off the Milngavie fairy-tale: “I think at half time they were starting to think that maybe this wasn’t for us at all,” recalls McFarlane. “Maybe we’re not going to win the league.”
But, as befitting a team that had overcome the odds time and time again across the season, they turned it around in the second half to win the game 4-2 and accomplish something that had seemed impossible when they were struggling to field a team only a few months earlier.
“When the final whistle went against North Kelvin, the players went mad. Really mad,” said McFarlane.
But already, attentions are focussed on the future.
Promotion means that next season will be a different test altogether, and now that they’re no longer an unknown quantity, what can Milngavie hope to achieve as they make the step up to Division B? Both coaches are keeping their feet firmly on the ground.
“Our number one ambition is to try and keep the boys together,” said Ewing. “From there, we’ll just try to improve if we can and see what happens.” McFarlane added:
“Next season we want to be competitive and we’ll see how things go.
“We certainly won’t set out with the opinion that we’ll win the league – I think that would be ridiculous to even consider that – but I want it so that other teams, when they see they’re coming up against us, know they’re going to have to play well if they want to beat us.”
But that’s similar to what they said at the start of this season. Lightning couldn’t strike twice, could it?