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The Making of Kai Fotheringham: From brutal academy axe and YEAR on the sidelines to Dundee United title winner

Courier Sport tells the story of one of the Tangerines' homegrown title heroes.

Kai Fotheringham celebrates one of his 15 Dundee United goals
Kai Fotheringham celebrates one of his 15 Dundee United goals. Image: SNS

As his teammates piled onto the minibus ahead of another afternoon training in Grangemouth, Kai Fotheringham rhythmically ploughed through his exercises.

Resistance bands and foam rollers.

Another rehabilitation session.

Gradual progress. Maddeningly gradual.

He was 13 years of age.

A series of hip problems – severe growing pains, effectively – sidelined Fotheringham for the thick end of a year. A crucial period of development wiped out. Enough to derail many promising careers.

Allied with the academy he called home closing its doors a couple of days before Christmas, Fotheringham could have been forgiven for thinking that his football dream may be destined to remain unfulfilled.

Not a bit of it.

“Kai was a strong personality,” says Ian Ross, who was Fotheringham’s head coach at the Scottish FA’s Graeme High Performance School, and a mentor since the age of 11.

“He had an edge, even at a young age. That set him apart from many others; if he had a setback then he would get right back up.”

A delighted Kai Fotheringham with the Championship trophy
A delighted Fotheringham with the Championship trophy. Image: SNS

This is the story of that journey from resilient schoolboy in Falkirk to Scotland U21 international, Championship title winner and Dundee United’s young player of the year.

Growing pains

Seemingly, Fotheringham had the perfect grounding.

A place at one of the Scottish FA’s prestigious performance schools, while on the books of the Forth Valley Football Academy (FVFA), which was affiliated with Falkirk FC.

With the Bairns famed for giving youth a chance, producing the likes of Scott Arfield, Stephen Kinglsey and current United ace Craig Sibbald, it was surely an ideal pathway.

Fotheringham was showing the requisite promise, and not just on the pitch.

A youthful Kai Fotheringham at Hampden
A youthful Fotheringham at Hampden. Image: K Fotheringham.

Ross notes: “Kai was basically a straight-A student. His mum made it clear that if his grades weren’t up to scratch then the football would disappear!”

But sticking to the football: “Kai helped the school win the Scottish Cup in S1 so that was a good start! He was always a forward-thinking, creative player and had good imagination.

“He loved his training. There was never a session where I thought, “c’mon Kai, you are being a lazy so-and-so today!” Not even one.”

With that in mind, being sidelined for the best part of a year was torment for the teenager.

Scottish FA performance school coach Ian Ross
Kai Fotheringham’s coach and mentor Ian Ross. Image: Scottish FA

“Not a lot of people will know that, when he was in S2, Kai had a problem with his hip,” said Ross. “Just growing pains, really, but it kept him out for most of that year. He could hardly train.

“He showed maturity and determination.

“I remember we would all go to Grangemouth Rugby Club to use the training pitches, which he couldn’t do, and Kai would be in the PE department doing his rehab – foam rollers, resistance bands; anything he could.”

Fotheringham left in limbo by “careless” announcement

Once back to full fitness and desperate to make up for lost time, Fotheringham soon found himself without a club.

The closure of FVFA was announced on social media six days before Christmas 2017, with Falkirk pulling their funding to pursue “the Brentford model” of picking up released youngsters from larger clubs.

Writing on LinkedIn at the time, blindsided FVFA chief Jamie Swinney – ironically, now the CEO of Falkirk – was forthright in his reaction.

James Maxwell was another youngster released by FVFA, who would go on to play for Rangers and Doncaster
James Maxwell was another youngster released by FVFA, who would go on to play for Rangers and Doncaster. Image: SNS

“Regarding the delivery of the news I can only apologise to everyone for the timing, method, and careless nature of it,” he lamented. “It lacked compassion, understanding and professionalism.”

The Bairns, having arguably betrayed their principles in favour of easy cost-cutting, proceeded to crash to League One, while a talented group of kids pursued opportunities elsewhere.

James Maxwell plays for Doncaster Rovers, Gabriel Forsyth went to Norwich after initially joining Hamilton, Zander Hutton is contracted to Rangers and Fotheringham, of course, arrived at Tannadice.

Fotheringham during his very early days at Forth Valley Football Academy
Fotheringham during his very early days at Forth Valley Football Academy. Image: K Fotheringham

“From nowhere, it (FVFA) was just gone,” continued Ross.

“I remember speaking to Kai and a few of his teammates who were in the same position, and they were left in limbo to a degree. “What do we do?”

“The good thing is that they had the Performance School, which was excellent for them; they could still train, do the sessions and have chats with any of the coaches.

“However, there were no guarantees they would get picked up by another club, so it was a testing time.”

Walking away from Rangers to join Dundee United

Fotheringham spent a month, on and off, training with Rangers during Craig Mulholland’s reign as academy manager. He worked under Peter Lovenkrands and ex-Dundee striker Peter MacDonald.

No offer was forthcoming, nor a rejection.

It felt non-committal.

Following a few sessions with United, they were far keener and offered a defined pathway, if he could grasp it.

Lee Wilkie, a man who knows a thing or two about what it takes to star for Dundee United
Lee Wilkie, a man who knows a thing or two about what it takes to star for United. Image: SNS

Former Tannadice stalwart Lee Wilkie was coaching in the United youth ranks when Fotheringham joined the club and found the new arrival ready to prove himself all over again.

“The group of players I had at that time included Chris Mochrie, Lewis Neilson, Darren Watson, Flynn Duffy; it was a hugely talented squad of young boys,” Wilkie recalls.

“Kai came in having established himself as top dog with his previous academy (FVFA) in Falkirk. But he realised that he would have to fight for his place. He wasn’t guaranteed anything at Dundee United.

“I think that brought him on, because he was switched on enough to realise that he had to battle for a spot. And he just kept progressing.”

Kai Fotheringham on Scotland U21 duty ahead of the Dundee United kid's recent debut.
Kai Fotheringham on Scotland U21 duty. Image: SNS

Wilkie added: “He would get a bit frustrated if he didn’t do as well as he thought he could.

“But I saw that as a positive; he always wanted to push himself and be the best player in that squad. Every player should want to be the best version of himself, and Kai really does.”

Ankle operations and collecting winner’s medals

Fotheringham made his United debut in October 2020, aged 17, but in keeping with his circuitous career, subsequent formative loan spells were not without their travails.

A maiden senior goal and some bright displays at Falkirk.

A brief foray to Raith Rovers in 2021 was wrecked by injury. He would require TWO ankle operations, demanding yet another show of guts and gumption to recover.

There was a spell at Cove Rangers that, while entirely unsatisfying and lacking the first-team opportunities he expected, did see him receive a League One winner’s medal.

However, it would be his time at Stirling Albion that ignited his career.

Darren Young, pictured, afforded Fotheringham the chance to shine at Stirling
Darren Young, pictured, afforded Fotheringham the chance to shine at Stirling. Image: SNS

Fotheringham contributed five goals and 12 assists in the first half of the 2022/23 campaign. The Binos would go on to win the League Two title, while the on-fire forward earned a January recall to Tannadice.

Former Forthbank boss Darren Young, speaking to Courier Sport after Fotheringham’s return to United, lauded: “Kai is only going to get better and better. He has everything you want from a player – pace, strength and the end product.

“Kai comes alive in the final third.”

Dundee United's Kai Fotheringham celebrates his brace at Hampden
Kai Fotheringham celebrates a brace at Hampden. Image: SNS

That assessment is echoed by Wilkie.

“He was one of the best finishers I have seen at that (U/16) age group,” said the former Scotland international. “I think we’ve seen that shine through in his involvement with the first team.

“In games where Dundee United haven’t played well – and maybe Kai hasn’t played well – he has still found himself in good positions and come up with goals. He has a natural gift.”

What’s next?

Fotheringham’s clinical streak was underlined as he repeatedly rippled the net during United’s march to the Championship title. Fifteen goals and seven assists; a third consecutive winner’s medal; a Scotland U/21 debut.

Not bad for his maiden season as a United regular.

But while Fotheringham’s path to this point has been challenging, there is an appreciation that the mountain only gets steeper. The next task: prove himself in the Premiership.

Jim Goodwin, left, and Kai Fotheringham clutch their awards after a fine month for Dundee United
Goodwin, left, and Kai Fotheringham clutch their monthly awards for October. Image: Richard Wiseman.

“Fingers crossed that he keeps progressing,” added Wilkie. “He is going into a tougher league against better defenders, and he’ll need to come up with more answers.”

Although full of praise for his knack of producing big moments, United boss Jim Goodwin has noted that “Kai can drift in and out of games sometimes and maybe isn’t always as involved as I would like him to be.”

Room for improvement.

But nothing the player is unaware of.

So, the final word to Fotheringham, spoken on the Tannadice turf moments after lifting the Championship trophy, when asked whether he believed he could successfully make the step up.

“One hundred per cent. I believe in my ability.”