If you could make ONE change right now in Scottish football that would have the biggest long-term positive impact what would it be?
Sack Gordon Strachan?
While I have found some of his inclusions, selections, formations and media comments frustrating, baffling and ultimately extremely disappointing with regards to results who am I to tell him how to do it better? Are we under performing at present? YES but Strachan is only the man who selects a team a few times a year, he is not the reason we are failing.
Scrap the Academy system and return to boy’s club football and street football?
Let’s be very clear on this one. Every top player in the world today has had some/most of his development through an Academy system somewhere. Any nostalgic notion that if we scrap the academy system tomorrow all kids will start to play again on the streets and we will start qualifying for World Cups needs to be quashed completely. Can the system improve? Absolutely and through the working group recommendations (currently on-going) I believe positive changes will be introduced.
The list of how to improve the game is endless from league reconstruction and summer football to a return to reserve football instead of U20s and so on. Enough ‘we don’t have the money’ and no more comparing ourselves to England, Spain and Germany which are not and never will be our comparative equals. The purpose of this blog is not to provide solutions to every one of these but to look at one change that can make a real difference immediately. For me the SINGLE biggest problem is young players not getting the opportunity to play.
Let’s look at the national picture;
Our U17s and U19s continue to perform reasonably well, over the last 5 years consistently qualifying for the elite rounds of the European competitions. The recent Victory Shield competition demonstrated to anyone watching we DO have talented players. When our Academy sides (Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen etc) travel to competitions abroad they compete well against the best in Europe at those age groups.
So our players do compete and are capable of performing against clubs and nations of strong standing at European level up to the age of 17/18
Why then do our Under 21s and then ultimately our national side fail?
For me the only way to improve as a nation given the challenges we face as a country is to give young players the chance and aim to become VERY good at producing and developing players. The players are given a good education from grassroots through academies to the U20 level in professional clubs but as they approach the age of 19-21 their development stalls. The overall quality of our top league is of a standard that would allow young players to come in as we are significantly behind the top leagues in Europe. I must say I do not blame managers for this; they are under pressure from the first game of the season to the last if they are lucky enough to manage a full season. Why would they put a 18 year old on the park in what is almost every week a must win game when a 25 year old who has played that level for years and is fairly reliable is available? Every manager knows these days they are only a few poor results away from potentially losing their job.
Therefore the SINGLE biggest positive change/rule we can introduce right now to reverse our decline is;
3 X Scottish U21s must start in EVERY Professional Scottish game, every competition, every club, every week.
A level playing field for all clubs, giving our most talented young players exposure to thousands of hours over a season of competitive professional football.
Would it work? The evidence suggests YES;
Ask many ex pro’s how they made the jump from youth football to the first team and they will say playing competitive reserve team football with adults helped prepare them. Squads were generally smaller and young players often had to play, again forcing them to learn and learn quickly. This in essence is no different from the U20s transition then the best 3 players playing first team football aged 19/20. Look at more recent case studies and the evidence is strong in favour;
- Hibs- Brown, Fletcher, Thomson
- Dundee Utd- Russel, Goodwillie, Gauld
- Hamilton- MacArthur, McArthy
- Falkirk- Arfield, Kingsley, Fulton
- Hearts- Paterson, Nicholson, King
In several of these situations managers were forced to play the young players (CHANCE, relegation, financial reasons) and in others situations it was perhaps the choice of the manager (DESIGN). The common trend however remains clear; the players were given significant experience early, racking up appearances before the age of 21/22. The clubs benefited through having good players as well as making financial returns on them. Ask any supporter of those clubs who have been the clubs best players in recent years and those names will pop up all the time. Players produced through Academies BUT exposed early to first team football because of chance or design. Many of the players mentioned have played or will play for Scotland. Can we as a country produce an even better standard of player? Yes and we must strive to produce players capable of getting Scotland back to the world stage but those players mentioned are some of the best we have produced in recent years.
- This will make it more difficult for clubs to progress in Europe? We are at our lowest ebb regarding European club competition. Short-term planning at its finest, look 5-10 years ahead and see the potential progression our clubs could make if we produce more players across the country of the caliber of those mentioned above or better.
- Fans want to see big names and signings coming into the club, this would restrict the players a club can recruit? A club will save money from paying young players less than they would a more experienced player and can use this to attract a higher quality of experienced player.
- Kids are not ready? In many cases the players named above were not ready but once exposed and given the opportunity they flourished and like many of their predecessors once playing at first team level against men they learned quickly and progressed onto strong careers.
In summary the introduction of a rule ensuring every professional club in Scotland must start with 3 x U21 Scottish players in every professional game would through time start to address the national problems we currently face. There is a lot of good work going on at clubs (both grassroots and senior) regarding youth development across the country, and the Scottish FA do make a significantly positive contribution to this. Every single area of the game can however improve and this would only be a starting point but I believe the single biggest positive change we can make right now. We are producing talented players aged 16-17 but the players need a chance, we must as a nation find a way of giving them that chance even if this means forcing it through a rule change.