“I’m a Partick Thistle fan,” said Laidlaw, Glasgow’s most famous detective.
After a summer of the back pages being dominated by Rangers and Celtic, even Laidlaw would have struggled to find clues pointing to the existence of the third Premiership club in the city.
But Thistle are fighting fit. The club, whose Firhill stadium is situated a stone’s throw from the Murano student halls, is now into its fourth successive season in the top flight.
Manager Alan Archibald has developed an attractive playing style on the pitch and Mathias Pogba, the brother of Manchester United’s £89million man Paul, was part of the team until August’s transfer deadline day.
While The Jags’ city rivals can afford to throw money at the signing of new players, things are done with one eye on the bank balance at Firhill. A lot of importance is placed on the development of youth players, which the club knows will represent its future.
The Thistle Weir Youth Academy started in 2013. The story of its foundation speaks volumes for the club’s identity and sense of community. When Chris and Colin Weir, lifelong Thistle fans, won a record £161million on the Euromillions lottery, they decided to donate £750,000 towards the establishment of a new and improved academy.
Speaking at the time, Chris said: “As long-standing fans of Partick Thistle, we were aware of the club's ambitions to create a new youth academy. What impressed us was that it wouldn't just be for elite players but would also encourage local youngsters into football for the sheer enjoyment and fun of it."
Thistle chairman David Beattie was delighted by the news. He said: “It is a momentous day for Partick Thistle. We are forming the Thistle Weir Youth Academy which has been kick-started by Chris and Colin Weir. What it means for the club is that the club is going to be able to take its 120 professional kids and expand that to about 400 kids.”
In May last year, Neil McLaughlin came on against Motherwell to become the first player to make his debut for the senior side since the Thistle Weir Academy began. Since then, several players from the academy have represented the first team and signed professional contracts.
The academy seeks not only to develop youngsters as footballers but also as people. One way of doing this is by taking them away from home for the first time to compete in tournaments.
Thistle have competed in Northern Ireland’s Milk Cup since 2014. The annual tournament, which has been running since 1983 and was rebranded as the SuperCupNI during the summer, takes place in the last week of July and has seen the crème de la crème of footballing talent pass through.
Manchester United’s Class of ’92, Wayne Rooney, Steve McManaman, Joe Cole, Sergio Busquets, Radamel Falcao, Mario Götze to name but a few. Teams from all corners of the globe, from Antrim to Zimbabwe, travel every year to compete.
The Milk Cup has proved to be a great platform for many of the young Jags to push on from. In 2014, Thistle reached the semi-finals of the Premier Section (Under-17s) where they came up against a Manchester United side containing the likes of Marcus Rashford, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Jordan Thompson, who is now on loan at Raith Rovers from Rangers.
This summer’s tournament saw the club enter at the Junior Section (Under-15s) for the first time. Faced by boys a year older than themselves, the young Jags battled valiantly against Sheffield United and Southampton without being able to secure a win. The highlight of the week came when an Aidan Fitzpatrick-inspired Thistle defeated Dundalk 3-1 in Ballymoney.
The Jags’ final game, against Colina of Chile, was at Anderson Park in Coleraine, where locals claim Glaswegian ship workers introduced football to Ireland. After the game, the Head of Academy Coaching, Scott Allison, spoke exclusively to the Glasgow Guardian about all things Thistle.
“To summarise the whole week, I think it has been a fantastic learning experience for the kids,” he said. “We’ve been staying at the Hilton hotel, with access to a swimming pool for recovery, the food and nutrition has been excellent, they’ve been getting into habits. They learn about professionalism and how to conduct themselves, it’s all part of the development.
“There have been times this week when players have made mistakes but they learn from them and, for us, that’s great. If they’re playing great all the time, they don’t always learn from it.”
James Penrice and Kevin Nisbet reached the semi-finals in 2014 and are now members of the first team squad. The aforementioned-McLaughlin and several others from that side have also tasted senior football. Allison spoke glowingly of the positive effect the Milk Cup has on youngsters. He said: “It’s fantastic; this is our third season here now. The first year our group got to the semi-finals. Some of the boys are now with the Under-20 squad and were just talking about that game last week. They absolutely loved it; it was the best experience of their young careers.
“It gives us a chance to play against different types of football, to try different things. It gives the kids an opportunity to see what the world is all about.
“The way it is hosted is just different class, in terms of the professionalism and the volunteers who help out all week. The parade on the first day was very exciting for all of these kids. They have loved every minute of it – that’s why we come back year after year – and it is great for our preparation for pre-season.”
Allison recognised the importance of the whole club buying into the development of youth players. He said: “We’re very fortunate that Alan Archibald was a Thistle youth player. He became captain and then manager so he knows the benefit of the pathway. The whole philosophy of the club is to create a pathway for our young players to develop and play first team football.”
He continued: “In Glasgow, Rangers and Celtic are the big fish and we are the small fish in that pond. It is vitally important that we get kids at a young age, get them into our system and make them feel a part of Partick Thistle. We want them to become fans of the club and then hopefully make the first team.
“The club has got a scheme where anybody under the age of 16 can get in free. There is a real family feel around the club, the doors are always open to everybody. One of the things that the manager is keen to do is to play attractive football. Hopefully everybody who goes to Firhill will be entertained and can enjoy it.”
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