Football Fun Factory

AM talks to Head Coach, Blair Gray

by Gill Sherry

The Covid pandemic was life changing for so many people. For Blair Gray, it provided the opportunity to become a full-time football coach.

“I’ve always played football. I play amateur football for Troon Dundonald. During lockdown, the chairman of the club asked me if I’d be interested in doing my coaching qualifications. At that point, the Scottish FA had moved a lot of courses online… so I started doing my coaching badges.”

Simultaneously, Blair came across Football Fun Factory on social media and began researching the concept.

“At the time, I’d actually started coaching my son’s under-5s team. Some people take it so seriously! Not just parents but coaches as well.”

It was the combination of witnessing this hyper-competitiveness and discovering Football Fun Factory that led to Blair taking his next step which would ultimately result in him leaving his 15-year IT career behind.

“There was a real market for what the Football Fun Factory was trying to do. It’s eliminating barriers for children to get involved in football, and to make it all about the fun.”

Football Fun Factory was created in 2017. After a couple of Zoom calls and a trip to Cambridge to watch the FFF in action, Blair was sold on the idea. He became the first Head Coach in Scotland in March 2022.

“They were looking for people who are committed to engaging with children and who are really passionate about coaching children. It’s not just about the qualifications you’ve got, it’s about making sure the people they get on board are a good fit for Football Fun Factory.”

During his visit down south, Blair saw first-hand how much the kids were loving it and was determined to bring that sense of fun and belonging to his own sessions north of the border.

With sessions in both Troon and Kilmarnock, Blair now coaches over 200 boys and girls across the programmes, and he knows each and every one of them by name!

“It’s one of the things I’m really big on,” he says. “I try to get to know them, ask how their day has been. It just makes things so much easier for the children and for the parents as well. I know how important it is to make children feel comfortable and welcome.”

Another thing Blair is big on is promoting and developing life skills. In addition to the football and other fun, physical activities, he and his team of coaches encourage the forming of friendships, mutual encouragement, respect and positive behaviour.

“We have a word of the week,” he explains. “This week the word is ‘caring’. I’ll ask what the word means to them and how it can be applied in football. They learn how to relate football to different life experiences and behaviours.”

They also operate a ‘blue card reward’ system.

“It’s the opposite of red and yellow cards. We don’t give them out for scoring goals or to the best players, it’s never anything to do with football. Have they helped the coaches? Have they been a good sport? We always like to relate it back to the word of the week. You’d be amazed what a blue card means to these kids!”

It’s a system that supports Football Fun Factory’s ethos: creating an environment where children can express themselves, play, make friends and have fun. And it proves there’s so much more to sport than winning.

“We have a lot of children that don’t really enjoy the competitive side of it. They like coming along to the training, they like the games we do, they like the social aspect, but when it comes to the actual competitive side of it, it’s just not for them.”

Which is exactly why they avoid anything of a competitive nature.

“We encourage the children to only challenge themselves. We don’t want them to be put off by that competitive element.”

In fact, Blair doesn’t want them to be put off by anything at all.

“All of the sessions are very inclusive,” he confirms. “We’re always open to any children coming along and giving it a try. The free trial is there for that exact reason.”

The three-week free trial allows boys and girls to go along and see what’s involved. But Blair insists it’s him that’s on trial and not the children.

“We’ve flipped it around. In grassroots football, children get offered a trial and then it’s about whether the coaches think the child is good enough. That’s pretty brutal for a 5 or 6-year-old! So, we still call it a trial but it’s me that’s on trial. It’s an opportunity for the kids and the parents to prove it’s a good fit.”

There’s absolutely no obligation to sign-up but for those who do wish to continue on the Football Fun Factory journey, a monthly subscription entitles them to one session per week at one of three venues. Discounts are available for additional sessions and for siblings.

Blair informs me there are two different programmes: Tots Football Fun for ages 2-5 and Football Fun & Development for ages 4-12.

“The Football Fun Camps run during the school holidays from 9am to 3.30pm. We have lots of different games and activities throughout the day. It’s very popular. These are suitable for children aged 5-12 years old.”

Despite the name, there is so much more to Football Fun Factory than football. As Blair explains: “We try and promote the social and mental aspects of it more than the football. We’re very inclusive of different abilities and support needs. The more information I have about the children, the more support I can give them. We try not to have any barriers at all.”

Certainly, one thing you’ll never hear Blair ask is, ‘what’s the score?’ because encouraging friendships is far more important to him and his team than winning or losing.

“The word of the week is quite often associated with friendships or meeting new people. It’s something we encourage quite a lot. Sometimes we do wee games where they have to partner up. I try to encourage them to find someone new that maybe they’ve not spoken to before.”

It reminds me of that ‘perfect fit’ he mentioned earlier. Blair’s obvious passion for the programme, coupled with the grin that he’s worn throughout our conversation, suggests he is indeed a perfect fit for Football Fun Factory.

“For the first time in my life, I’m doing a job that I absolutely love doing.”

In fact, he loves it so much he’s building relationships with local schools, clubs and communities, promoting the fun side of sport and talking about the many benefits of Football Fun Factory.

Blair’s sessions are split between Grange Leisure Centre and Ayrshire College in Kilmarnock, and Muirhead Activity Centre in Troon. For more information visit www.thefootballfunfactory.co.uk or find ‘Blair Gray’ on Facebook.