A LONG-SERVING Helensburgh area football coach says a struggle to find enough players to pull on the jersey on a Saturday afternoon lay behind his decision to hand over the reins.

Sam Gemmell stood down this week as the manager of Rhu Amateurs’ Greater Glasgow Premier AFL squad – and says he fears the long lay-off caused by the Covid pandemic may have a lasting effect on at least some aspects of the amateur game in Scotland.

Gemmell set up a men’s amateur team under the auspices of Helensburgh Football Club 14 years ago, playing first in the West of Scotland Amateur Football League and then the Greater Glasgow Premier (GGPAFL) set-up.

He stayed on as manager of the GGPAFL squad when Helensburgh and Rhu’s adult squads joined forces in the summer of 2021 - a link-up which was arranged in a bid to improve the player pathway for young footballers in the area.

But after two recent occasions when the club’s GGPAFL squad was unable to muster enough players to fulfil a fixture, Gemmell – who will stay on as Rhu’s club secretary – said he came to the decision that it was time to seek a fresh hand on the tiller.

“On Saturday there, from a squad of 16 players the previous week, 11 couldn’t make it,” he told the Advertiser.

“Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy Saturday afternoon football – even though I’ve been on the wrong end of some right hammerings – but when you don’t know on the day of a game who’s going to be there, and you find you don’t have enough guys for a team, you end up letting the other team down and letting the league down – and then a fine pops up.”

Gemmell says the problem is far from a Helensburgh-specific one, and pointed to the fate of North Lanarkshire amateur club Tower Hearts, who lifted the 2021-22 Scottish Amateur Cup at Hampden in May but have been unable to fulfil fixtures in the Central Scottish AFL this season.

“Obviously when Covid happened it put everything on hold as far as football was concerned,” he said, “but since then a lot of folk who were playing at amateur level have found other things to do with their Saturday – especially their Saturday afternoons.

“You go on Twitter or Facebook every week now and see that teams all over the place are struggling for numbers.”

Gemmell’s involvement in local football goes back much further than his days coaching and managing adult amateur squads – indeed he first took up coaching of youth players at what was then the Clyde Community Education Centre, known as Clyde Centre YFC, around 25 years ago, and says he’ll remain involved with Helensburgh FC, where the focus is now firmly on youth development, as well as staying on as Rhu Amateurs’ secretary.

Following the amalgamation of the Rhu and Helensburgh adult set-ups last year, with the squad led by Gemmell joining forces with Rhu’s existing Caledonian League side, Rhu added a new ‘colts’ squad at the beginning of this season – effectively the under-19 squad from Ardencaple FC which has been, and continues to be, coached by Jamie Kjorstad.

The colts team plays on Saturday mornings in the Glasgow Colleges FA league, and Gemmell says that is one area of the amateur game that appears to be showing signs of rude health.

“Jamie’s had that team since they were kids,” he continued. “Now the’re effectively an under-20 squad with a sprinkling of older players to help them along.

“I hadn’t actually realised that Saturday morning football was so popular, but it obviously suits more and more guys to play a game in the morning, be finished by 12, and then spend the afternoon watching their ‘big’ team, or spending time with their family, or whatever.

“But overall the numbers for the Saturday afternoon games are definitely falling.”

Reflecting on his 14 years leading the Helensburgh and then Rhu amateur teams, Gemmell said his personal high point was leading Helensburgh FC to promotion into the GGPAFL’s top flight in the 2018-19 season – the last full campaign before Covid struck.

“We were promoted that year after being bottom of the league,” he recalled.

“We were stuck at the bottom after four or five games. Then in our sixth game we scored in the last minute to draw 2-2 – and after that we went on and won 13 games on the bounce.

“We won promotion but missed out on the title in the last game against South Lochaber, but I still thoroughly enjoyed that season.

“I don’t think any local team will emulate what those guys did.”

Posting news of Gemmell’s decision to step down on Facebook, a Rhu spokesperson said: “To say Sam will be missed leading our Greater Glasgow team is an understatement.

“It is, however, testament to his love of the local game that he will be staying on as club secretary.

“We’d like to thank him for everything he’s done for the club since coming on board and what he’s brought to the club with his wealth of experience.”

Rhu are now advertising for applicants to take on the running of the club’s GGPAFL squad.

The club says suitable candidates need to be able to commit to training twice a week and to games on Saturday afternoons – and, importantly, to attract new players to join the club.

To register your interest or find out more, send a direct message to the club via the ‘Rhu Amateurfc’ Facebook page.