Google+ Blueprint for Football: 2012

Friday, December 28, 2012

Making the Right Move

One hundred and thirty four.  That is the sum total of minutes that Scott Sinclair has played in the Premier League since moving to Manchester City on deadline day.  One hundred and thirty four minutes played by a player on whom City spent £6.2 million; one hundred and thirty four minutes for a player who up to a few months back was being touted as a potential England international.  Within the space of a few weeks, Sinclair has gone from being a regular starter to not even making it to the match day squad.  As far as transfers go, his hasn’t been a particularly happy one.

What makes Sinclair’s case particularly intriguing is that he has already been in this situation.  His formative years were spent at Chelsea and he was good enough for Jose Mourinho to give him a start against Manchester United on the final day of the season back in 2007.  Yet, even though there were many who believed in him, ultimately he had to move away in order to establish himself.

That is what he had finally managed to do at Swansea where 82 appearances spread over two seasons, including an impressive campaign in their debut season in the Premier League, signalled that his potential was finally being fulfilled.  If there ever was a player who shouldn’t want to move to a club where he would at best be a squad player, you would think that it would be Sinclair.

Yet make the move he did.  It might be tempting to think of Sinclair as another whose main motivation is his bank account but probably that didn’t play that big a role.  It is more likely that what spurred Sinclair on was the desire to be involved in something more than a squad for whom a mid-table finish is success.  He wanted to be involved with a side that is constantly challenging for honours; he wanted to prove that those who had let him go at Chelsea had made a mistake.

Increasingly, however, it is looking that it was he who made the mistake in moving to City.  Asked about the situation, City’s assistant-manager David Platt replied that “When a player comes to this club, they are going to have to accept they are not going to play week in week out. Some will play more than others, but when we spoke to Scott, he knew what he was coming into, that it was a big, big squad.”

Already there are rumours that Sinclair will soon be on the move again and, although there is still time for him to make his mark, most probably it would be best for him not to hang around too long.

For now, his is a warning tale for any young player: join a big club at your own risk.  Do so without looking at their track record of bringing promising players through and you risk stalling your career.  And when you lose momentum when you are in your early twenties, it is very difficult to get it back.

This piece was originally published in Blueprint for Football's bi-weekly newsletter.  For exclusive content, snippets of future articles and links to the best football articles around, subscribe here.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Fans Gain New Voice With Launch of Fans Parliament

Although it is not the kind of article that would normally be featured on Blueprint for Football, the feeling was that the subject was too important to 

A new initiative to gain a wider view of Scottish football fans’ opinions, which has been endorsed by the Scottish Government, has been launched by Supporters Direct Scotland.

Supporters Direct Scotland has already had talks with the Scottish Football Association, The Scottish Football League and The Scottish Premier League about working with them in the coming months and years.

The ‘Fans Parliament’ initiative will allow a two way communication with all fans of all clubs, from senior to amateur and in every community in the country, to help Supporters Direct Scotland gather fans’ views which will, for the first time, be collected and reported directly to the Scottish Government and to the football authorities.

Included in the ‘Fans Parliament’ initiative will be the new ‘’ website, a series of roadshows across the country, increased engagement at matches and social media channels and a series of surveys on specific topics concerning the game. Supporters Direct Scotland have already had input into the current

Henry McLeish said, “It has been a unique year for football fans in Scotland, on a local as well as national basis, with ordinary fans’ voices being heard loud and clear in a way they’ve never been heard, or listened to, before. Now there is a drive and determination to ensure that the momentum that was gained isn’t lost.

“The new ‘Fans Parliament’ initiative will provide a platform for fans to continue the debate in the knowledge that it will be reported back to the Scottish Government and to the organisations running football in Scotland.”

Paul Goodwin, Head of Supporters Direct in Scotland said: “Fans voices are being listened to more than ever before and we know that in recent months there has been an unprecedented debate about the game in Scotland.  Through Supporters Direct Scotland fans have a direct route into government and policy makers and we want the new ‘Fans Parliament’ initiative to be the conduit for the debate and discussion between fans across the country and, in effect, be the voice of Scottish football fans.

“We want to facilitate discussion on key issues affecting our game through online discussions and debate and regularly present those findings to Government and the game’s governing bodies as the very latest in supporters’ opinions and views in the game.  As an organisation funded by the Scottish Government we have the ability to present supporters views directly to them as well as to the SPL, SFL and the SFA.  Talks have already started at Hampden Park looking at how we formalise this relationship with the governing bodies.

To have your say, you can follow Scottish Fans on Twitter (@ScottishFans), like them on Facebook and join the debate on their Pie and Bovril sponsored forum– all of these links are available from their website

Monday, December 24, 2012

Some Words of Thanks

When, at some point during April, I put out a tweet asking if there were any graphic designers who could help in the design of this site's Facebook page, at best I was expecting someone to provide me with some pointers.

What I got instead was a reply from Ritwik Roy who liked the site so much that he offered his professional web design services for free.  His ideas - and his creativity - astounded me as did his generosity as he re-did everything; ultimately reconstructing Blueprint for Football giving it the nice look it has today.

I'm sharing this story not only because I want to publicly thank Roy for his help but also because it is also a fairly typical in so far as this site is concerned: I've found help, support and encouragement at every turn.

When I was toying with the idea of setting Blueprint for Football, it was the brilliant Roy Henderson who gave me that encouragement that I needed. Roy has remained a supporter throughout, providing feedback and opinions as well as retweeting links to the articles. CNN digital producer John Sinnott is another to whom I owe thanks as he not only allowed me to reproduce his excellent article 'Coaching the Brain' but has retained an active interest throughout.

Over the months there have been others who have given similar support. Sachin Nakrani allowed me to reproduce his interview with Frank McParland whilst the guys at In Bed With Maradona liked the interview with Hamilton Accies' Frankie McAvoy so much that they asked to reproduce it thereby providing this site with an added platform.

Then there is Craig Easton* whose interest in the everything related to football is infectious and who kindly allowed me to publish his excellent articles on the future of Scottish football.

And so on.

All of this has helped make Blueprint for Football more of a success than I had ever imagined; not necessarily in the number of hits (although even those have been very positive) but in the human connections that it has allowed me to make.  Which is infinitely more important.

So, thanks to all those that have helped along the way. And thanks also to all those who have visited and read the articles. It is all greatly appreciated.

* Of course, Craig is also a professional footballer currently at Torquay but who has played at Dundee United as well as Scotland Under 21s. What he doesn't know is that I used to manage him when I was in charge of Aberdeen. In Championship Manager.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

More Ways to Follow Blueprint for Football

If you enjoy Blueprint For Football so much that you want to make sure that you never miss anything that we come out with - and we hope that is the case - then you might be interested in learning that there is now a Twitter channel dedicated entirely to this blog where we'll be promoting all the articles that appear here.

Yet we're aiming to be slightly more ambitious than simply putting out occasional tweets promoting this site's articles.

Instead, we will try to flag up any articles out there that interest us and, in turn, might interest you; through the Blueprint for Football Twitter feed we will be curating the best articles so that you don't have to waste time looking around

So, do give us a follow and we'll do our best to make sure you enjoy it.

On top of that, we have also launched the Blueprint for Football newsletter.  This will be issued on a bi-weekly basis and will feature an editorial piece written exclusively for the newsletter (although a few days after publication this will be replicated on the site).  There will also be links highlighting the favourite articles we've read over the previous weeks and which we want to make sure you don't miss.  Occasionally there might even be some form of a sales pitch but we promise that whatever we do, it won't be overbearing.

The Blueprint for Football Twitter channel can be found here whereas the Blueprint for Football newsletter can be subscribed to here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Laws of Attraction (in Youth Football)

Whilst much of the focus of any development plan will be on the coaching that is delivered – and rightly so – results will always be limited unless the right players are attracted to that programme.  Often, the role of recruiters is left to coaches or former coaches who might not appreciate (or believe in) the need to sell their programme to the players and their parents.

Even if they do, given the competition that there is for talent whoever has the better strategy to gain their trust will win out.

Helping improve that strategy is what Dan Tudor specialises in.  The founder of Tudor Collegiate Strategies, his work is aimed at getting colleges to be more effective, more creative, and get better results from their drives to recruit talent for their sports programs.  Here he shares his views on these topics.

Why is it important to look at recruitment techniques and policies?  What edge does it give you?
For American college coaches, understanding how an athlete chooses a school for college soccer is going to give them a roadmap to developing a strategy for recruiting them to their program.

The same holds true, in my opinion, for a club soccer coach.

Not doing so is equivalent to a soccer coach saying, "I don't need to scout our next opponent and break down how they attack and defend...what edge would it give us?"  Of course, any good coach knows the answer to that.  You learn tendencies, identify areas of opportunity, and develop a game plan based on the best information and insights possible.

The same principles are at play in understanding how this generation of athletes, and their parents, decide who to trust with their soccer career.  If you don't understand how they make their decision, you have less of a chance to approaching them correctly when it comes to recruiting them to your program - which means it is more likely you will lose that battle, in the same way you would lose a soccer contest against an opponent who you haven't scouted before meeting on the field.

What are the fundamental characteristics of a good recruitment policy?
First and foremost, consistency.  Your message needs to be regular, and sequential.  You need to tell an effective story of why they should choose you, based on things that are important to them.

Secondly, any good coach should ask for a commitment as early as possible in the process; it's the best way to show this generation of athlete that you are serious about them and want them more than the competition.

On the flip side, what are the most common pitfalls and mistakes?
Not having the same kind of plan to recruit and market your program as you would when you develop a game plan or seasonal development plan for your players.  Most soccer coaches recruit haphazardly, and get results that match the effort.  Lack of planning is one of the fatal recruiting mistakes that coaches make.

Not asking for a commitment is the other big mistake.  Again, it's the top way athletes say they determine whether or not a coach is really interested in them.  They don't want to be "pressured" into making a commitment, but they do want to see a coach's passion for them.

How important is honesty and not trying to over-sell your system?
Honesty is key.  Especially for American athletes, they are constantly on the lookout for being "over-sold" or lied to by college coaches who would exaggerate the benefits of their program.  When you are selling your program to a prospective family, you want to be passionate about your program, but not go so far as to lie or make promises you can't keep.

Does the work end once the athlete is recruited? Once the athlete is recruited and convinced to join a club, does the work stop there?
After the process is complete, letting your new group of players answer an anonymous survey as to how they made their decision, who influenced them, what their #1 objection was, and why they ultimately chose that particular soccer program.  I think it’s critical that it's anonymous and done all at once, because it will free them to be honest and open in their feedback vs. telling a coach what he or she wants to hear for fear of loss of playing time or other retribution for negative comments.

More information on Dan Tudor and Tudor Collegiate Strategies can be found on their website.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Unexpected. But Nice.

When Blueprint for Football was set up, the over-riding desire was to get to talk about people, ideas and methodologies that I found interesting.  Of course, there was the hope that there would be an audience but that was more down to a desire to find others who shared this enthusiasm.

Praise and recognition certainly weren't expected.

Which is probably why I was so pleased when Blueprint for Football was named by as as one of the "50 Football Blogs/Sites You Must Look At!".  It is nice to see the work we've put in being recognised especially given that we're being placed in a list that contains some of our own favourites like In Bed With Maradona, The Swiss Ramble and Two Hundred Percent.

Anyway, thanks to Scott over at The Footy Blog and check out the full list that he's compiled.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Q&A: Liverpool FC Academy Director Frank McParland

This article by Sachin Nakrani originally appeared on the popular Liverpool FC website, the Anfield Wrap.

ON Monday 10th September, I interviewed Liverpool academy director Frank McParland at his office in Kirkby. The 53-year-old, a lifelong Red who was born and raised in Huyton, was engaging company and over a period of 35 minutes spoke to me about how the academy has evolved since he joined to head it up in 2009, how he feels it will benefit the first-team in the future – and specifically how it will benefit the style of play Brendan Rodgers want to establish at first-team level – and about youth development in general.

We also spoke in some depth about the NextGen series, the Uefa-sanctioned under-19s competition that is now in its second year. Liverpool reached the semi-finals last season and opened this campaign with a 3-2 defeat to the holders, Internazionale, last Wednesday.

Raheem Sterling cropped up, too, partly due to the impact the 17-year-old academy graduate has had at first-team level this season but also because on the same day I travelled to Kirkby to see Frank, Raheem got called up to the England senior squad for the first time. It was a piece of fortuitous, pleasant timing.

Below, then, is the transcript of my interview with Frank. I would like to thank Shaun Gaddu and Paul Grech for contributing some of the questions. Very much appreciated.

You must be delighted to hear Raheem Sterling has been called up to the England squad?
“Immensely, it’s great news. We signed Raheem from QPR when he was 14 and he’s been here ever since. Everyone has worked hard with him and eventually he’s pushed through [to the first team]. We always thought he’d be a special talent, so we’re really pleased he’s been chosen for the England full team.

At 14 its difficult to say [if they’re going to make it at the highest level] because at 14 there is so many things can happen in their development; where do they live? Do their parents live with them? Are we managing them properly? It was a big thing for Raheem [moving to Liverpool] and he got home sick, so we brought his mum up and he’s been flourishing ever since. So it’s not always about things on the pitch, why kids improve.

“Raheem’s very quick, he’s an intelligent player, he’s an extremely hard worker and he’s a winner. He’s also a really quite lad, he’s got a very good personality, good sense of humour, and he’s a nice boy, really nice boy. And when he’s on the pitch he has a real determination of what he wants to do and how he wants to push himself.”

The NextGen series was well received last season by those who took part in the tournament and watched it. What was your take on it?
“It was a massive learning experience for the players, the staff, and me. For all of us involved, it was a fantastic experience. “We came third in the tournament [last year], which was crazy because Sporting Lisbon beat us twice, really comprehensively, and they were probably the best team we played.

“The experience for us is playing against different systems, different managers, different referees, going abroad, going on the flight, getting the kids used to travel, staying in hotels – it’s about playing best against best and is designed for the next level, so when kids push through to the first team they are used to doing what the first team do.”

Liverpool experienced some heavy defeats during last season’s tournament, such as against Sporting Lisbon, and also against Ajax in the semi-final. Have those experiences scarred the players involved?
“Not at all. When Ajax played us they had three players who had played in the Champions League, and they made sure they were fit for that game. We had players who were with the first team and couldn’t play for us, so it was a bit unfortunate that night as we weren’t at full strength and in the first half we were getting beat 1-0 and missed a penalty, and were playing really well up to then. But after we missed the penalty a lot of our heads went down. We’ve spoken about that and everyone’s learnt from that, coaches, players, everyone.”
How do you assess the group Liverpool have this season? They’re in Group Five with Borussia Dortmund, Internazionale and Rosenborg

“It’s a really interesting group, with teams from Scandinavia, Germany and Italy, one of whom, Inter, are the winners [of  last season’s tournament].

“What’s great for us is that in Scandinavia we have a massive fan-base – the last time we played at Molde there were more Liverpool supporters there then there were Molde supporters, and Molde is in the middle of nowhere! It was incredible. So we know in Scandinavia we’re going to have a big crowd fighting for us, which will be good. “Inter are a typical Italian team, they won the competition last season, and rightly so. The group is a really good group and we’re looking forward to it.”

Will the newly established under-21 team [which has replaced the old reserve team] take part in NextGen?
“It’s actually players born in 1994 and below, so most of them are 18-year-olds. There will be very young under-21s involved in it, but most of the team will be the best 18-year-olds.”

Can you name some of the more high-profile players that will be involved?
Suso - now part of first team plans - in NextGen action against Ajax last season (Pic: David Rawcliffe)
“Suso’s got a chance of being involved in it. You’re allowed three [players born in] 1993, so it’s possible we’ll have Conor Coady, Suso, Andre Wisdom and Stephen Sama.

“We’re going to be OK at the older end, it’s at the young end where we may struggle. We haven’t got a lot of 1994’s to be honest, mainly ’95’s. But they’re good ‘95s.”

Will any of the NextGen games take place at Anfield?
“All of them will take place at St Helens, where we played the Ajax game. Around 6,000 [spectators] watched the game, we had to put the kick-off back half an hour as there was that many people queuing to get in. When Inter Milan play Liverpool you can bet there’ll also be a big crowd there.”

Did you made a conscious decision not to play any NextGen matches at Anfield?
“With the Europa League it was always going to be difficult. If we progress we would hope to have one or two games there, but for the moment it’s going to be St Helens, which is a fantastic stadium, has a really good pitch and really good facilities.”

What do you make of the introduction of the new under-21 league, is it something you support?
“It’s part of the Premier League’s EPPP [Elite Player Performance Plan] and, again, is supposed to ensure best against best. We’re really young in it because most of our players are 19 – you can have under-21 and some over-age players but we’ve tended to stick with the group we’ve got, win, lose or whatever, no matter what. As long as the boys get used to the system we play and progress in the system, we’re happy with that.”

The aim of the EPPP is to increase the number of England-qualified players in the Premier League from the current 39% to 50% How realistic do you think that is?
“It depends on the club – if you’re scouting abroad you can have a lot of homegrown players who aren’t actually English because if you get them at 16 they become homegrown at 19 no matter where they were born. You would hope it will increase because of the way younger age-groups are going to work; the under-16s are now playing the same games as the under-18s and the under-21s.”

Liverpool’s youth setup has become increasingly continental, but is there a desire to have a strong core of English and, specifically, Liverpool-born players at the academy?
“When Rafa Benitez brought me back for this project [in 2009] he wanted English and British players to come through and he was really keen on getting the best players from the Liverpool area – and I was tasked with doing that. We scout very hard here now and it is important with Financial Fair Play coming in that we start producing more British players.

“If there are two players worth looking at, one is English and one is foreign, and they’re at exactly the same level, we’d always take the English player. If one is English and one is Scouse, and they’re at exactly the same level, we would 100% always take the Scouse one, because our club’s identity has always been about having local kids coming through and we’re desperate to carry that on.

“But the quality is the quality and if we can’t get the quality in Liverpool or surrounding areas then we’ll go somewhere else. But we love having Liverpool lads coming through and it’s great to have [Jon] Flanagan and [Jack] Robinson make their debuts [for the first-team] in the last couple of years, then Raheem, who is from London, and now [Adam] Morgan, who is probably the most fanatical Liverpool supporter you could meet.”

How far and wide is the academy’s scouting network? Do you, for instance, have scouts in Africa?
“At the moment the first-team [scouting] setup is going through a big change and it’s likely to go even more global. At the moment we don’t have anyone in Africa, but I can see with the new setup that there is a keenness for greater globalisation. We have people in Argentina and Brazil and we have all of Europe covered, but we do need to branch out to Africa and places like that.”

As part of EPPP, clubs can recruit 30 players in each age group from under-9 to under-14, 20 at each of under-15 and Under-16, 15 in each from under-17 to under-21. How does that compare to what’s currently happening at the academy?
“It’s pretty much what we’re doing at the lower age. When I came back they used to bring in between 14 and 16 under-9 players per year and we’ve got that up to 24 now because you need that pyramid at the bottom where there are a lot of players to choose from. To get the 24, we first look at around 5,000 kids, who are brought to us through our scouting system.”

Are there a certain number of kids who are let go each year?
“Normally one or two are released at the end of each year and we then take one or two in throughout the year, so the numbers are constantly in a state of flux, going up and down.”

What are the current staff numbers at the academy?
“The EPPP states you must have one coach to every 10 players, so our coaching staff has increased, as has the medical staff, also the fitness, strength and conditioning staff. It’s a really busy setup.”

How many kids are there at the academy at any one time?
“Signed kids; there are probably between 180-200. But we also hold regular trials.”
On your profile page on Liverpool’s official website, it says the academy offers kids here with “best possible guidance.” What does that mean exactly?

“We have Phil Roscoe, who is in charge of education and welfare, and he does an unbelievable job looking after the kids. We speak to them about social networking, about sexually transmitted diseases … we have a full educational programme, we don’t just leave them to go back to their house parents and don’t teach them about the life. At the end of the day we want them to be fantastic footballers but we also want them to be fantastic lads as well and we work hard at achieving that.”

Fair to say the hardest part of your job is telling a kid he isn’t going to make it at Liverpool?
“It’s the worst part of the job and it’s heartbreaking to do it, but I’m pretty sure all of the players that didn’t become scholars [graduates who are signed on two-year contracts] last year got a club somewhere else through our help. Wolves took two players off us, Stoke took some … we’ll always ring around clubs and say ‘We’ve got a decent player, what are you looking for? Come and have a look at him.’ Whatever we can do to push them on, we will.”

Pep Segura recently resigned as the academy’s technical director, which must have come as a blow. Is he going to be replaced?
“It was a blow, yes … Pep is actually still here at the moment so I don’t know where we are with that, but as soon as that is resolved the boss [Brendan Rodgers] and I are going to speak about the situation and how he wants to move the academy forward. The boss has great experience of working with youngsters from his time at Chelsea and I know he has his own ideas of what he wants done here. I also have my own ideas and we’re not too far apart in terms of the way we think about the game. So I’ll be having discussions with him and, for sure, he’s going to have a major influence on how we push forward here.”

Has Brendan Rodgers embraced the academy and the work you’re doing here?
“We have an established style [of play] and it’s not too far away from what Brendan wants. I’ve had five or six meetings with him and he’s always been positive about the players here, especially those who have gone up and trained at Melwood. We had a game there last week in which Brendan put 15-year-olds in alongside the likes of Jamie Carragher and Stewart Downing, so he’s really looking at the whole setup and I think he’s happy with it.

“As I say the whole time, there is only one team that matters at Liverpool and that’s the first team, no matter who has been the manager here that has been our philosophy. Our job is to help the first-team.”

Brendan has a clearly-identified playing philosophy, will that philosophy be adopted throughout the academy?
“It’s pretty much the way we play here already; the kids are told to press high, the full-backs are told to push on … one thing he wants is for the players to be comfortable on the ball in all positions and that is what we’ve been striving to do with the programme Pep Segura setup. He [Rodgers] is happy with the results and I am sure he will want to influence that further.”

Brendan stating publicly that more youngsters are going to get opportunities in the first-team must only encourage everyone associated with the academy?
“All we can do here is work hard. We believe we’re doing it right way – the kids understand tactically better now, they still have work to do when they go with the first-team, but the work is getting done properly and there is no one better than Brendan to make the necessary tweaks once they are with him.”

The last Liverpool youth-team player to establish himself in the first-team was that man there [I point to a large photograph of Steven Gerrard hanging in Frank’s office]. He made his debut in 1998, why has not been another Steven Gerrard in the past 14 years?
“To produce another Steven Gerrard is difficult because his mum and dad produced Steven Gerrard, as Shankly would have said, not the coaches here. Steven Gerrard was born to be a top player, but what we’re better at now is producing players that can player in the Premier League and you’ll find that in the next three or four years we’ll have a lot more players come through and play for Liverpool.

“This is the fourth year of the project and already we’ve had the youngest player to have ever played for Liverpool in Jack Robinson, the third youngest player in Raheem Sterling and then there is Flanno and Morgan, who are both in the top-20. So in the history of a club that is 120 years old, four of its youngest ever players have come through the current youth setup, that shows we’re starting to make a real impact and pushing the kids on quicker. NextGen will only help that process.”

Can you give specific examples of things that are being done with the kids now that weren’t before Rafa overhauled the academy in 2009?
“The programme introduced in 2009 is the Spanish way, which is about pressing hard, working hard, keeping the ball and being comfortable in possession. All the coaches here work to the same plan. Each coach has specific duties they have to undertake on specific days, it’s all timetabled and has been proven to work in Spain through the work Pep Seguara did at Barcelona, it’s mainly his ideas.

“We have an established style in regards to how we play and it’s not far away from what Brendan wants to do with the first-team. To go back to that game we had at Melwood last week which included first-team players and 15/16-year-olds; the level was really high, and for me that highlighted just how on track the work we’re doing here is.”

In his open letter to supporters, John Henry said the club wanted to put an emphasis on “developing our own players.” But has that not been the case here before FSG took over?
“It is Rafa Benitez who put us on the successful track we are on now. He asked me to come here and change the way we did things, to get the kids through quicker, to make sure the fitness was right, to make sure the physiotherapy was right … I feel it’s not just one thing we do right, it’s a lot of things we do right, collectively. I have fantastic staff here, I’m really proud of them all, they work tirelessly and are so dedicated to what they do. We’re one club, we were one club under Rafa, we were one club under Kenny and we’re still one club under the new boss.”

You speak with real warmth about Rafa, I get the sense you feel his imprint is on everything that is achieved at the academy?
“Absolutely, and Kenny always mentions him when he speaks about the academy. He started it all off, he was passionate about youth football and I see similarities in the new manager. I’m hoping it’s going to be continued success with Brendan and we continue to push on.”

Is there a direct link between the academy and FSG? Do you answer to the owners directly?
“No … Tom [Werner] and John [Henry] have been down here on a couple of occasions and I know they’re very keen on what we’re doing. But they’re obviously busy with the first-team.”

Has FSG’s emphasis on developing players put pressure on you? Do you feel under more pressure now than at any other time since becoming academy director?
“All the staff here put themselves under pressure to produce and work hard. We’re self-motivated and will work through thick and thin to do what’s best for the kids. At the end of the day it’s about the kids and how we can push them on.”

When you look back at your time at the academy what would like to have been your greatest achievement?
“I had really good success with Rafa and the first-team; I was chief scout and did team-analysis on our Champions League opponents. Being involved in that and the success which followed was probably one of the proudest moments of my life. When I finish at the academy, I would like to be remembered for helping the entire setup here improve and, most importantly, for getting players through into the first-team. The target is to have 50% of the first-team squad having coming through the academy.”

Do you think that’s realistic?
“I honestly do. If we keep investing in players like Raheem Sterling when they’re a little bit younger and work with them in the way we worked with him, I know we’ll produce players for the first team.”

Are you open to adopting ideas from other successful academies?
“When we go abroad as part of NextGen I like to speak with my counterparts about what they’re doing with their clubs – you’re always likely to learn one or two new, useful things. It was amazing when I asked Barcelona about how they get kids into La Masia every day; a lot of their kids live in La Masia but they also transport a lot of kids in from around Spain. They told me they spend 800,000 Euros a year on taxis, which is incredible.”

Is there any way Liverpool could spend £800,000 on taxiing kids to Kirkby?
“No chance!”

Being a Liverpool fan yourself must make being the director of the academy particularly special?
“You ask anyone who has stood on the Kop, or watched Liverpool for years, they’re all mad supporters who at some stage in their life have wanted to play for the first-team. I’m in a unique position where I can watch some of the kids we have worked with here play in the first-team and that honestly gives me a massive buzz.”

You once said that you came into work at 8.30am and left at 8.30pm. Is that still the case?
“I wouldn’t say its 8.30 in and 8.30 out anymore but it’s still a seven-day-a-week job with two weeks off in the summer and one week off at Christmas. It’s a job that requires full dedication, but when you love doing your job it’s not really a job. All of us here are getting paid to do a job thousands of Liverpool supporters would do for free. I realise how lucky I am.”

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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Hamilton Aiming To Be The Best

Craig Levein. Judging by how the post-game talk was dominated by whether the Scottish FA should replace him or not when Scotland lost to Belgium in the World Cup qualifying stage, a defeat that left them bottom of their group with just two points, you would think that pointing at the manager was all that was needed to identify the reasons behind this dire situation.

Yet, for all Levein's defects and mistakes, the fault lines of Scottish football lie much deeper than the manager's role. For a nation that once produced world class players like Kenny Dalglish and Dennis Law, Scotland now struggles to produce players who are even remotely close to that level.

There are many reasons for that, yet one of them has to be the lack of vision shown by clubs. Few have dared to be innovative; fewer still have been brave enough to build their teams around the players coming out of their system.

Hamilton Academical, however, are among those few. Their youth system attracted attention for producing James McCarthy (pictured, left), who made his debut for them before he had turned sixteen, and James McArthur whose debut came as a seventeen year old. Both players helped Hamilton reach the Premier League before being sold for significant amounts to Wigan.

The emergence of those players didn't come by accident but rather was the result of years of work on their youth system; a system that their Youth Academy Director Frankie McAvoy has helped build. "Our philosophy is very simple: in every sport the goal is to be the best that you can possibly be. That is what we try to teach our kids here. Other than that, our aim is to get people saying that they love to watch us play," he says, explaining the beliefs that guide their work.

As per McAvoy's own admittance, it is a simple philosophy yet it is also one that is full of wisdom. Indeed, an attitude of pushing everyone to improve as much as possible is one that anyone involved in youth development would be advised to adopt.

If the philosophy is simple enough, the technical strategy to achieve it is a bit more complex. "There are five pillars in our coaching," McAvoy continues. "First of all there is the match where we prepare players for competition and in an environment where they're familiar with what they'll have to do in a game."

"Secondly there is tactical skill where we work to have clever creative players capable of adapting to the game and the changes that might be needed. Then there is the technical pillar that relates to each position requiring its own abilities. For instance a central midfielder will need different technique than a central defender."

"Fourth is the physical aspect where we're looking for strong and resilient players. If they struggle to handle the physical side they will commit errors so they must be ready for that."

"Finally there is psycho-social as every player is a human being and has his own worries. We have to help them and guide them so that they can handle themselves when they move up."

Such talk of pillars might sound like fancy corporate management talk, yet the analogy is a perfect one. If getting one to be the best they possibly can be is the ultimate goal then you have to look at each area of their development in order to ensure that they get there. And, like any pillar, each area needs its attention because if one is too weak then everything would crumble.

From talking about the overall structure, McAvoy then moves to the detailed tactical plan that Hamilton Accies adopt.

"What we do is that we bring them [the kids] in to make them as technically good as we can. They start at Soccer 7s playing in a 1-4-1 formation so that they can express themselves and get a feel of the ball. When they get older we introduce the 4-3-3 which we feel is the best system to play. The full back can move forward, it is adaptable for wide players high up the pitch, the central defenders have to be comfortable with the ball and you need a striker who can be the focal point of all of this. That's exactly what we do and what we try to get."

"We try to be as offensive as we can based on a system of keeping possession. We work on having good speed of play and players who are organised. Finishing is encouraged even from a distance. We will rarely change from those systems. Our goal is to produce football players rather than good youth teams."

Such praise of the 4-3-3 system indicates that McAvoy is another who worships at Barcelona's altar seeing that it is the system that they have helped popularise. Yet it is clear that his is not simply blind faith: he has adopted the system because he believes in the benefits that it brings to his sides.

More importantly, he's also analysed and adapted it so that it fits his particular situation.

Barcelona, for instance, give little value to the physical strength of their players which befits their situation as a club playing in what is largely a technical league. Hamilton, however, play in an entirely different culture so they have to ensure that their players can handle themselves physically.

Indeed, that is a key element that McAvoy looks at when it comes to promoting a player from one category to the next.

"What we do for a young kid showing potential we would move them up an age group to see how they go. For instance, if they're doing well at Under 14 we'll move them to the U15s to see how they go. First and foremost, however, if we're moving them up we see if they're capable of handling the physical side of the game."
If they're good enough they're old enough, then. As long as they're also strong enough as well.

Of course, sometimes the players who are promoted can't handle the step up. It is a delicate situation that needs to be handled carefully. "Sometimes some find it difficult. Then it is just a case of having them back in, to talk to them and helping them understand what needs to be done."

"It is all about developing the individual," he repeats, as if to stress just how important this is.

Most of the time, however, that development goes according to plan at which point the player progresses all the way to the first team. When it comes to recruiting players, this has obvious benefits. "A kid coming in, even if he's very young, knows that if he works hard and shows potential then by the time that he is sixteen he'll have a good chance of playing."

That much is evidenced by a cursory glance at the current Hamilton first team that is filled with players just out of their teens.

These results aren't coincidental but the work of a club who have decided to base the team around their academy graduates. It is why they've appointed a manager who is comfortable with that strategy. "I work on a daily basis with the first team manager," says McAvoy "Our philosophy is similar. He's very hand's on, he watches them play and occasionally he comes to watch the coaching session. It is a very simple transition. Having that understanding is the most important thing."

Inevitably when you have a young team, results aren't immediate. So it is proving to be at the moment for Hamilton but McAvoy is confident that will change. "On a first team level it is about finding a balance. If you have a lot of young players it might be difficult initially until they find their feet. That's what's been happening this season. Although we've been playing fantastic football, the results haven't been." "It is about to getting the fans to understand that it'll take a bit of time but ultimately they'll be able to enjoy a side that plays great football."

"That doesn't simply apply to us. Scotland have produced many good players but we haven’t been producing players capable of playing at the highest level for some time, we stopped producing world class players some time ago and we need to set that as a long term goal. Playing 4-3-3 offers them the chance to do that and to have the tactical flexibility to progress."

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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Efficiency of Youth Systems

Every year, clubs release tens of youth players in whom they've invested years of coaching.  Some go years without seeing one of the players developed by their system make it to the first team despite the money the pour into their academy.

All this might seem a pretty inefficient use of resources, but it isn't.  That is what Simon Kuper, co-author of the brilliant book Soccernomics, thinks.

"It is not lot of money [that clubs invest].  I've seen the data and it is at most around £5 million per season.  It all depends on your level.  If you're Chelsea or Manchester City it is very hard for a guy aged 18 to perform better than established international players.  It is very, very hard.  If you're Stoke or Sunderland then it is easier. It depends on the club."

Kuper also has pretty clear ideas regarding the best age for clubs to sign players with the twenty to twenty-two age group being the one identified.

"That's what we say in the book.  You get people like Freddy Adu who were built up as having the potential to be a huge star but never really delivered.  It is very hard with a 17 year old to know whether they will be good.  With 20 to 22 year olds that isn't the case.  You can get them when they're still not yet a very expensive but you're buying him when it is clear that he can be a very good player.  That is, for instance, what Ajax did with Luis Suarez."

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Restructuring the Scottish Game

By Craig Easton

This is the second installment of a three part series about the future of Scottish football.  Parts one and two can be read here and here.

Editorial Note: These articles were written when Rangers financial troubles' were emerging but before anything had been decided regarding their league status.

The general  consensus  among  fans,  journalists,  players,  managers,  and  anyone  who  cares  to commentate on the state of Scottish football is that a restructuring of the league set-up is vital to the future of the game. At its inception in 1998, the SPL consisted of 10 teams, but for the 2000/01 this was increased to the current 12 team structure which is wholly unpopular.

Each team in the SPL plays 33 games before the league splits in half in April, when the top six and bottom six teams play their five remaining games against the sides in their section.   The bottom team is relegated while the top three qualify to play in Europe the following season.  Before I even delve into the pros and cons of this set-up, there is a glaringly obvious problem with this model - a lack of fairness.  The SPL tries to ensure that every team plays each other twice at home and twice away, but the split makes this numerically impossible.  For example, before the split, the teams will play each other three times.  Some teams will play certain opposition twice at home and once away, and vice versa. In theory, when the league splits, a team fighting relegation could look back on earlier fixtures  against those sides in the top half and argue a case that their campaign has been tougher if they’ve played superior opposition away from home more times than one of their fellow relegation contenders.

This is the foundation on why the league cannot be judged to be fair. The SPL is the only competition in Europe that operates an uneven split league format.  Imagine telling Alex Ferguson that he has to  visit  a team with a good home record more times than one of his fellow title contenders, while they (Man City, Arsenal, Chelsea, or whoever it may be) get to play them twice at home.  I don’t think Sir Alex would be too pleased if he looked back at the corresponding results come the end of the season and figured out those games contributed to Manchester United not winning the title.  It just wouldn’t happen.

However, that’s not the only argument against the current format.  The fact teams are still playing each other three, four and sometimes even five or six times a season (if they get drawn together in cup competitions) is a major  negative for most fans who would like to see a larger SPL. The players are also bored of the monotony of playing against each other so many times in a season.  It was one of the reasons why I enjoyed my time in England so much.  Playing a team once at home and once away keeps things fresh and interesting for both the players and the supporters.   Henry McLeish acknowledges this in his review of Scottish  football, and recognises there are multiple options for a new look SPL although worryingly, the 10 team format is one of the models discussed. The SPL’s Ian Blair admits, “If we were starting with a blank sheet of paper, we  wouldn’t  do anything like we’ve got now and if we were running it purely for sport, we’d also do things differently; but this is a business as well as a sport”.

Unfortunately he’s right.  It’s not so easy just to rip it up and start again.  The financial implications weigh heavily on the decision making process - something Falkirk manager Steven Pressley sees as holding back progress.  He said, “I think every decision in the game at the top level is driven by TV money, not what is best for it as a whole.  We need to listen to supporters; 85% of them want the league structure to change”.

According to Alan Harris (chairman of the Scottish Council Supporters Direct) the vast majority of fans want a 16 or 18 team league and Stephen Thompson (Dundee United chairman and SPL board member) can understand this. “From  a football point of view most people would like to see a bigger league but financially it’s a completely different scenario altogether”, says Thompson.  “It’s difficult to get  the balance right and no-one can agree on anything at the moment; everyone’s finances are different, turnovers are different, fan base, debt, ambition.  What you would like to see footballing-wise is different from a financial perspective and it’s trying to strike that balance.”

Achieving that balance is made all the more difficult by the operational structure of the SPL.  The chairmen of the  12 SPL clubs are collectively responsible for any changes made concerning the business of the league.   The voting structure in place at the moment means that 11 out of the 12 teams all have to agree for any proposal to be passed and as you can imagine, that is a very rare occurrence, exacerbated by the dominant position of the Old Firm.  It doesn’t matter what topic is on the agenda - restructuring or the distribution of income from television rights; if Rangers and Celtic don’t agree with everyone else, then it won’t happen.  That might all change as the other 10 clubs  are making moves to push through proposals concerning the voting structure itself, which may result in a more democratic 9-3 majority coming into effect.

Taking some power away from the Old Firm will certainly give the other clubs more of a say regarding the future size of the SPL but, as Stephen Thompson stated earlier, there’s no guarantee that anything will be resolved.  The biggest question regarding change has to be: how many teams should be in the top league? Almost everyone I’ve spoken to that has a serious interest in the future of Scottish football, agree that this conundrum has to be addressed.

There are many possible permutations. The proposals for a larger SPL might be popular with supporters; however, some suggestions are more financially viable than others.   According to the calculations of SPL Chief Executive Neil Doncaster, there will be roughly £20m lost revenue by changing to a 16 or 18 team league. Money, he says, the game can’t afford to lose.  Ian Blair agrees with his boss and also argues that at this moment there isn’t enough quality across a broad enough spectrum to support a top tier of that size.  Steven Pressley disagrees.  “I think we need to get to about 18. I think that size of league gives clubs the opportunity to build.” He feels that in the current set-up, the standard of play and  development of players is suffering, at the expense of surviving for another season. He said, “We’ve got a  league where you can be sitting quite comfortably in fifth and then three or four games later you’re tenth and under pressure.  You’ve got a situation where managers are under real pressure and while someone has to sit at the bottom of the league, there needs to be a transitional period at clubs and a bigger league would help”.

I would love to see an SPL where teams only play each other twice a season but both the league and the clubs have a valid point. An 18 team set up would affect the financial situation that’s in place at the moment because there wouldn’t be the four Old Firm games that the TV deal hinges on.  Take away another two, or four full houses (depending on what half of the league they end up in) and the clubs will lose that extra revenue they usually get when the Old  Firm  visit. United’s Stephen Thompson  clarifies  the  reliance  on  Rangers  and  Celtic  with  this  example:  “When  we  played Inverness we took  £10,000 at the gate but when we play either of the Old Firm we take around £140,000”. Rightly or wrongly, clubs rely on this source of income, and budget accordingly. Thompson says, “I’m critical of the Old Firm, everyone has been...but we’ve got a £16m TV deal because of them and if we lost that every club in the SPL would be burst!”.  Journalist, Jim Traynor surmises, “The TV deal isn’t for the benefit of  Rangers and Celtic because they only get £1.2m from it, but the rest get £900,000, which is a lot of money for them”. Rangers and Celtic bring much needed revenue to the Scottish game and they both realise how much the other teams rely on them and they use this to their own advantage.   The SPL is merely a vehicle for the Old Firm to attempt to realise their European ambitions.

Jim Traynor believes a bigger SPL is the way forward; however, taking into account the financial implications, he realises it’s not easy.  A 14 team top league is his compromise.  In his model every team plays each other home and away, then the league splits evenly (seven and seven) with each team playing twelve fixtures thereafter which equates to a total of 38 games.  He thinks this format can satisfy most people.  He says, “You still get the four Old Firm games that the TV want, with the final one being sold at a premium along with play-offs for Europe and relegation to try and make up some of the money which will be lost by having two more teams in the league”.  Ian Blair can also see  the merits of a 14 team SPL, while Stephen Thompson would stick with the twelve and introduce play-offs to give another team from the First Division a chance of winning promotion.

Play-offs are an excellent way of generating excitement toward the end of a season. The fans respond to  cup final like occasions while the games give teams something to play for. They encourage  more  competition while at the same time giving the clubs involved a chance to earn some  extra  income  which  could  help  them  if  they  win  promotion,  or  to  re-build  for  another challenge  the  following  season. In  England  the  play-offs  are  a  success. There  are  fewer meaningless games even in a league of 24, and I myself have been in a position with five or six games to go where a good run from mid-table could have resulted in my team achieving a much sought after play-off place.  It’s not unusual for the SPL title to be decided before the split or earlier and, while this season the fight for European places has been interesting, the title is normally a foregone conclusion between the Old Firm.

SFA Chief Executive Stewart Regan doesn’t think size is the issue.  He’s more concerned about the quality of the football, stating, “We’ve got 42 teams, would we really have that amount if we were starting again?”.

He thinks that the quality of football in Scotland suffers because there are too many teams operating as professional clubs compared with the population of just under 6 million, and I agree.  Regan admits, “The biggest challenge for us is the gap between the First Division and the SPL which I think is too wide, and it  means that teams that get relegated like Falkirk and Hamilton struggle to keep their infrastructure in place”.  The SPL’s Ian Blair also notes the disparity between the two leagues and says, “We have to find a way of narrowing the gap financially between the bottom of the SPL and the top of the First Division”. He  echoes Regan when he describes relegation as “financially devastating”, and wants to help convince clubs in the top tier to give up some money and distribute it more evenly and into the league below, while also making sure that parachute payments are increased for those who are relegated to “soften the blow”. Falkirk manager Stephen Pressley is well aware of the financial gulf.  When they were relegated two years ago he had to reduce his playing budget by 75% - the whole club was affected.

Forget about the financial implications for a second.  Managers, players, and according to Pressley, most importantly fans, all hope for progress. “We’re driven by the TV money and the four Old Firm games and forgetting about the supporters.   A reality check will come when the TV money disappears and clubs are left wondering, ‘Where are the supporters?’  Well, you neglected them for the last 10 years.”  He continues, “The fans aren’t always right and they don’t always know the ins and outs but in any other business, if your customers are  telling you something and you ignore them, eventually they’ll turn their back on you.”

Scottish football can’t afford to allow that to happen.   Attendances are falling and in the current economic  climate, anyone who chooses to spend their money on attending a football match is making a major decision.

There are other activities vying for that hard earned cash, and at the moment going to a match isn’t necessarily the most attractive way to spend a large amount of a supporter’s  weekly wage. On average, ticket prices are around the £20 mark with most clubs charging  closer to £30 for derbies and Old Firm matches because they know people will pay a premium for these.   On the whole, season tickets are good value for money.   Hibs chairman Rod Petrie, says that it works out at £12 a game if you invest in one at Easter Road, but there is no such discount for the travelling fan.   Adding up travel costs and food, following your club around the country is an expensive business.   A possible incentive to get more away fans through the gates could be to offer discounts to anyone who is a season ticket holder, but what most fans want to see is a reduction in prices across the board.

Ian Blair acknowledges that attendances are generally falling.  However, he points out that relative to population, more people go to watch top class football in Scotland than anywhere else in Europe. That’s a surprising statistic and he understands it has to be taken in context. He says that while there are roughly the same number of fans going to games now as there were in the late sixties and early seventies, not as many are supporting their local teams as  Blair did back then.  “I’m a Morton fan for my sins”, he admits, and says there is a “Huge polarisation toward the Old Firm”.  He’s not wrong. Supporters buses leave from towns and cities all over the country, ferrying Rangers and Celtic fans to Ibrox and Celtic Park or wherever else they might be playing that day.   Both those clubs and their fans will argue that their large travelling support is  what’s helping to keep some clubs afloat and this is hard to deny, but if more people supported their local team instead of either of the Old Firm, then the clubs wouldn’t have to rely on them as much.

With ticket prices no more than €20 (£16) Germany knows where its priorities lie.  Without doubt, the fans come  first, and it’s no surprise the Bundesliga has the highest average attendance of Europe’s five major leagues.  That reasonable ticket price looks an even better deal when you take into account that it doubles as a free rail pass.  It would have cost a good deal less to soak up the title winning atmosphere on the world’s largest terracing, Dortmund’s Sud Tribune, than it would have taking in a Hibs game at Easter Road or any other SPL ground this season - and incredibly most in the First Division as well.  The supporters aren’t treated as a commodity like they often are in Britain, but are thought of as the “core value” of clubs according to the  Bundesliga chief executive Christian Seifert (talking to Jamie Jackson in an article for The Guardian two years ago).

Borussia Dortmund have recently been crowned German Champions for the second season in a row; however, three different teams have had their hands on the title in the previous four seasons. There hasn’t been a German Champions League winner for a decade, but the domestic league is certainly competitive. The winner of the 18 team  Bundesliga wasn’t decided until the third last week of the 2011/12 season, while the battle for European places went right to the wire before it was decided which teams would qualify for either Champions League or Europa League football next season. At the other end, with two sides going down and a third entering a play-off with teams from Bundesliga 2, there was plenty of excitement to keep fans of the bottom clubs on the edge of their seats almost until the final game of the season.

Scottish football can look to the Bundesliga for inspiration.  It’s true the fan base of most German clubs are not only large but extremely loyal.  Instead of focusing on TV money, the clubs look after their support and make going to a game an attractive prospect as well as value for money. The owners have also curtailed wages and united to focus on youth, and while this might limit their European ambitions in the short-term, they are once again producing talented players to revive the national team.  Steven Pressley urges Scottish clubs to learn from them; “The example we need to take from the German model is of all the clubs actually working together in the best interest of their game.  In this country, it’s all about self-interest”.

The relationships between the SFA, SPL, and SFL are stronger, and dare I say it, friendlier than they have ever been. I feel there’s a collective attitude in place to work together in order to take the game forward.   However, the future of the Scottish domestic game lies in the main part with the chairmen of the SPL clubs who ultimately decide which path it takes.  According to Pressley, this is a major problem in itself. He said “You  can have no idea about football, buy a football club because you’re wealthy and then have a major influence on the future of our game.”  He would like to see the voting structure abolished and an independent board set up to make the important decisions or at the very least for the SFA to take a more active role.

The Scottish FA have recently shown their intention is to do just that.  Along with the SPL, they are keen to introduce UEFA’s Financial Fair Play initiative which will limit clubs’ spending on players wages.  While most are managing their finances better than ever, the cases of Hearts and Rangers this season underline how important it is to put some sort of legislation in place.  Stewart Regan has also not so subtly hinted to clubs that if a decision is not reached on the voting structure soon, then the Scottish FA will take a more active role.   I think that a governing body should be pushing its members to make decisions for the good of the game - in fact it’s their responsibility, and I think Stewart Regan understands this.   The SFA and the SPL have been criticised for standing idly by while the game has deteriorated over the years and both organisations will admit to being on the periphery for too long - but they can only do so much.  Scottish football is largely in the state it is now due to the decisions made by the clubs who play in its top league.  History will judge them for what has gone before, but they have an opportunity to put it right.  It just remains to be seen when, and if, they take it.

Craig Easton is a professional football player with more than two hundred appearances in the Scottish top flight - most of them with Dundee United - and with 22 Scottish Under 21 caps.  Currently at Torquay, he has just finished a degree in Professional Sports Writing and Broadcasting at Staffordshire University.  He can be followed on Twitter.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Next Stage for Scottish Football

by Craig Easton

This is the second installment of a three part series about the future of Scottish football.  Part one can be read here.

In the past, Scottish football has produced International stars capable of playing at the highest level. Players like Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness for example, were the driving force behind both Liverpool’s domestic and European success in the 70’s and 80’s.   I could go a bit further back to periods in Scotland’s footballing history when Aberdeen, Dundee United, Celtic and Rangers were forces to be reckoned with within the European sphere and homegrown players competed with the very best the continent had to offer.   There was a time when it was almost a requirement of any successful English side to have at least one Scottish player in its ranks.  However, at international level those same players failed to display their talents beyond the group stage of any World Cup. On a positive note, at least they qualified on a regular basis, although it’s a widely held belief that Scotland should have achieved more with the talent at their disposal.

The national side currently sit at number 56 in the FIFA rankings.  I think it’s hard to attach much significance to this system (apart from maybe the top fifteen or so places) especially the further you go down the list. However, there  are tangible truths which are a more telling indictment of Scotland’s current International footballing position.   Scotland have failed to qualify for the group stages of a World Cup or European Championships since 1998 and 1996 respectively and don’t look like bucking that trend any time soon.   While the overwhelming majority of the current Scotland squad ply their trade down south, some even in the self-proclaimed best league in the world, none play  regularly for any of the major contenders; sidelined national team captain and Manchester United midfielder, Darren Fletcher the only exception.

The Scottish FA has put together a new Player Performance Strategy which outlines how they plan to develop the best young talent from the ages of 12 to 16.  But what happens after that when the lucky few are propelled into the cut and thrust of professional football?   Not enough players are making the transition to first team football and  those who do aren’t good enough to help our national side qualify and compete in major championships. That’s  not  to say there aren’t any talented young Scottish players. On my return to the SPL, after spending six years in the lower leagues south of the border, I was impressed with quite a number of the new batch coming through. But where do they fit into the Scottish structure and does one even exist to help them get to the next level?

Scotland Manager Craig Levein and National Performance director Mark Wotte understand the need to develop a unique footballing identity.   You can’t just conjure one up or copy a template. The Dutch and the Spanish have had theirs firmly in place for decades.  Jumping on the Barcelona La Masia bandwagon without having a clear direction  of our own is not the way to go either, although there are certainly lessons to be learned from the youth set-up of the best team in world club football.  The Scottish FA’s Chief Executive Stewart Regan, understands that there are a whole series of things that contribute to the making of an elite player and wants those that Scotland produce in the future to be recognisably Scottish - in a good way!  He explains, “There has to be a mindset or a philosophy of what we’re trying to develop Scottish players into, and at the moment it’s all over the place.  It’s down to the individual club to set the agenda on how they want you to play and what Mark is keen to do is develop a Scottish style of play”.  It’s hard to argue with Regan when he points out that there is very little “artistry” or “science” to the Scottish game. He backs Wotte and Levein’s attempt to try to establish those credentials associated with a passing game like the Dutch, Spanish and Brazilians have done over the years, but admits; “That doesn’t just happen overnight, you have to develop that”.

Former Rangers player and current Ajax manager, Frank De Boer, delivered an honest summary of Scottish football in Jim Traynor’s recent documentary ‘A Match For Europe’ when he said, “What I saw from my time in Scotland is that they don’t care much about the technical side, it’s more about the aggressive stuff like roll your sleeves up and go for it.  At the highest level the technical skills are so important.”  For too long, the template for Scottish football has been based around the virtues of aggression, physicality, work-rate and determination, with technical ability sometimes considered a bonus or merely an afterthought.  Every team has to have a balance of all those characteristics, but football in this country has neglected the latter, and that balance has to be addressed.  I think that mindset is changing to some degree, but our nation has enjoyed its position as the underdog that sporadically punches above its weight for too long.  I think every team has to play to its strengths but not to the detriment of the development of their players.

As a member of the Scottish international squad from the schools set-up and every SFA youth level all the way  through to the national under-21 side, I recall us relying heavily on those qualities - particularly in the younger age bracket.  I’ve got to be honest, it worked up to a point.  I remember a team-talk from a manager before a game against England that went along the lines of: “They’ve got three lions on their jersey, we only need one!”.  Cue an almighty roar and the head-butting of walls - or something to that effect.   And it actually worked. On that occasion, we outfought  the  ‘Auld Enemy’ and with a fair bit of skill thrown in for good measure, we earned a draw.   It could have been a sweet victory had we produced a bit more quality in front of goal.  Over the years we also held our own against the Dutch, the Italians, the Portuguese, Croatians and French (I don’t think we had a “Our lion beats their cock speech!”) but I often had the feeling that we were playing right at the edge of our limits or beyond just to compete.  I loved the challenge, revelled in it, and was very proud that we could achieve respectable results against supposedly superior opposition.   It didn’t matter to me that it was largely down to our  attitude and work-rate and at the time I felt the experience  of  playing  international  football  was  making  me  a  better  player. However,  the ‘Braveheart’ mentality can only take you so far and there comes a time when the opposition develop that same level of combativeness.  Ally that to a generally higher level of technical ability, and our nation’s club and international sides are all too often found wanting when competing on a global level.

It’s impossible to rely on natural battling instincts alone, especially in the modern era. Tough tackling and physical play is not tolerated by officials the same way as it was a decade or so ago but the high pressure game that has been associated with Scottish (and British) teams for so long has been taken to a whole new level by  the Spanish, and most notably Barcelona and Athletic Club Bilbao. Last season, Falkirk manager Steven Pressley blooded 14 players who graduated from his club’s impressive youth set-up, and he believes we can use the Spaniards as an overall example of how the game should be approached.   He told me, “I look at Spanish football and I think that has to be our bench-mark.  I’ve mentioned to our players that Athletic Club Bilbao (ACB) are 80% academy”. That’s an incredible statistic.

Another relevant one is that ACB have a policy of signing only players who are born in the Basque region, an area which borders north-eastern Spain and south- western France and has a population of just over three million. Their  focus has to be on youth. Marcelo Bielsa, Athletic Club’s Argentine manager, masterminded some excellent Europa League performances last season - his side’s demolition of Manchester United over two legs the pick of the bunch.  Even though they were sitting in a modest position in La Liga, ACB’s style of play made a big impression throughout Europe, no less on Pressley.  The ex Scotland International  is a big admirer of their philosophy. He  enthuses, “Athletic Club Bilbao hunt the ball down better and more aggressively than any British club. They  play the short passing game so that when they lose possession, they’re close to the ball and are able to hunt in packs to win it back, with seven or eight players in close proximity to each other.”   However he understands it’s difficult to play that way without having a high level of technical ability and thinks Spanish football is leading the way not only in producing successful teams with this style, but also in the entertainment stakes. “It’s a brilliant league to watch because teams pressure the game so well that the players have to be able to deal with the ball in tight areas - it makes for fast, exciting, quality football.”

Former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola made it clear that he thinks Bielsa is a top coach who he can learn from, but it is the former who has achieved considerable success playing what is beginning to be  considered  ‘The  Spanish  Way’. It’s  no  coincidence  that  players  at  both  clubs  look  so comfortable in their roles in the team; for most of them the style of play we are now witnessing has been a part of their footballing education from a young age.  Even those who don’t come through the academies are signed because they have qualities that will benefit the team and will fit easily into the system. You can take it to another level entirely and look at that continuity  which has helped make Spain World Cup winners.  These players may be from different teams but are familiar with a certain style, so with a little bit of tweaking, Barca players like Xavi and Iniesta, can come together  with  Madrid’s  Alonso  and  Ramos  and  ACB’s  Llorente,  to  combine  with  ease  at international level.

Steven Pressley wants to instill that same continuity throughout his club.   After Falkirk suffered relegation from  the SPL in 2010, he admits he was forced into focusing on young players and homegrown talent in particular.  The club had to make massive cut-backs, especially on the playing front, and Pressley has wholeheartedly put his faith in youth.  He looks on the situation as a positive step for both himself and the club and admits that it’s changed his outlook as a manager.  He said, “It’s been the best thing to happen to me because I believe in young players more now than I ever did.  It was a long term strategy of the club but it’s been thrust upon us”. Last season Falkirk finished in third place in the first tier of the Scottish Football League.  The squad has an average age of 21 and is  predominantly Scottish, many of whom made their way through the Academy headed up by former player, Craig McPherson.  The young side won last year’s Challenge Cup but more impressively, gave a good account of themselves against Celtic in the semi-final of the League Cup, defeating the other half of The Old Firm, Rangers, along the way.  Pressley hopes to continue the early success his youngsters have tasted (some already have almost 200 professional  games under their belt) and realises a solid structure has to be in place if more players are to progress to the first team.  “If you don’t have that along with a real in-depth style of play, it’s harder to get them in your team earlier...our 16, 17, 18, and 19 year olds play absolutely identical to our first team.  We have a style of play where there are very few grey areas - we work on it relentlessly.  The players know their roles and responsibilities within the team and  have a clear picture of how our team play”.  Because of that he says that the transition for his players from the youth team and ‘reserves‘ has been easier and adds, “They all know the trigger points and positions relating to the ball, both when we’ve got it and when we haven’t”.

As a manager and a coach Pressley understands the importance of his role to not only help his young players develop their technical ability, but also their tactical knowledge.  I’ve  noticed that a number of players who are promoted into first teams are often lacking in the basics of the latter and it often hinders  their progression. Pressley isn’t surprised. “I think we’ve got so many young players in this country, that ability wise are very good, but at a young age don’t have the know- how.”  He accepts that they won’t be experienced but they must have a clear understanding of how the team functions.   He adds, “To get them playing regularly in the first team, you’ve got to give them that”.  I’m not sure whether enough Scottish managers and coaches spend enough time on that side of the game, while a lot of players tend to switch off when faced with what some perceive to be boring tactical training sessions.   Pressley agrees, “We do have good managers in Scotland but I think our game here is tactically way behind the Spanish”.

With their own facilities part of the state-of-the-art training complex at Stirling University, and an Academy which has already produced more than a teams worth of promising talent, the future looks bright for Falkirk.  Pressley is well  aware it’s a work in progress, and that this season they’ve exceeded expectations.  He isn’t getting too carried away.  He said, “We’re way ahead of schedule, but this can’t be an overnight project, it’s for the long-term and the problem with too many football clubs is short term vision; it takes time to build a team, build a culture and to fully build a club”.  I am in no doubt that he is on his way to achieving his objective.

The route for young players to progress into the first team at their club is different now than it was when I made my  breakthrough at Dundee United. Back then, you were given a three year apprenticeship with the theory that by the end of that time, or ideally earlier, you were ready to make the transition to playing regular first team football.  I was lucky enough to make my first team debut at 17 and I believe the games I played in the reserve team alongside experienced first team professionals like Dave Bowman and Owen Coyle stood me in good stead to make the step up.  It was seen as a big achievement to be promoted to the reserve squad. Since the clubs voted to disband the reserve league at the end the 2008/09 season that sense of progression hasn’t been there and I feel that’s resulted in a generation of players whose development has suffered.

The clubs have voted unanimously for the implementation of the under-20 League proposed by Mark Wotte, the SFA Performance Director, and the competition will begin next season.  He sees it as helping to bridge the gap between the current under-19 team and the first team squad, but admits that ideally he’d have liked to have remedied  that by bringing back the reserve league proper. Unfortunately, the feedback he garnered from club chairmen was  telling him that having three teams was unaffordable.  The plan in place at the moment sees the under-19 league disbanded and the age-group extended by a year, with the option to play a number of over age players in a weekly competitive format.  At the moment those players who don’t feature on a Saturday have to rely on the sporadic organisation of ‘bounce’ games for match fitness.   I’ve played in a few of these this season when I was returning from injury and while a good exercise to get some game time under your belt, most games were played on training pitches which are not always the best surfaces and often dilute the match scenario they’re trying to be create.  We didn’t even have any linesmen for one such game. As a player, you’re trying (and expected) to approach these games in a professional manner.  These factors make it more difficult so, on the face of it, an organised competitive league looks like a step in the right direction.

I can understand the compromise, and I welcome the fact that younger players are going to be playing alongside, and tested against, more experienced opposition, but my first reaction to the proposal was that  if  there are a number of players over the age of 20 who haven’t played on a Saturday, where do they fit in?  If the clubs have to organise ‘bounce‘ games as well then it would defeat the purpose of the new league.  As yet, there has been no decision on the number of overage players allowed.  Conversely, too many overage players would have an impact on the playing time afforded to the younger players - the ones this proposal has being specifically aimed at improving.

Terry Butcher, manager of Inverness Caledonian Thistle, thinks the system already worked pretty well. He said, “With us, when a player gets to 18 or 19 he should be in my first team squad or very close to it.   If not, then he’ll be released to go and play somewhere else”. He uses the exciting young talent emerging from our game at the moment as evidence of not needing to tamper too much with what was in place; “We’ve got a lot of good young players coming through and they’re playing down south in the Premier League and the Championship as well as the SPL. Our international under-21 side is doing well and guys like Celtic’s Jamie Forrest are really blossoming, so if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

Steven Pressley thinks it’s a welcome step forward and relishes testing his young players in the new set-up.  He said, “You will be playing 16 and 17 year olds against experienced players which is brilliant for their development - it’ll continuously challenge them”.  Butcher understands this but is also mindful of the negatives and cautions, “Sometimes they aren’t ready to play against these older players - it can destroy them and knock them back”.  There’s obviously a balance to be sought but there’s no doubting that a more organised and competitive format will create a more realistic game type atmosphere, something which is difficult to recreate with a ‘bounce‘ game.  Pressley agrees, “I think our kids are starved of that and because of it I think we produce players who are mentally soft that can’t deal with pressure.  They need to playing in stadiums in front of fans, under floodlights”.

There are changes underway and I’m sure there will be more to come.  Only time will tell if these impact directly on the quality of players that Scotland produces in the future. In the shorter term, I hope the good young talent that has sprung forth can progress to the next level and fulfill their potential, if not only to help the nation to compete at a higher level, but to begin to re-establish its footballing identity that has gradually faded over time.  For that to happen there has to be a structure that will help a player to be able to thrive in the modern game, and while the Scottish FA are keen to play a major role in doing so, the clubs have to look at doing the same.  It comes down to individual managers and chairmen who have to look at the bigger picture.   They have to understand that youth development mustn’t only be seen as a cut-price lifeline or a short-term fix, but as the  building block for sustained future success.

Craig Easton is a professional football player with more than two hundred appearances in the Scottish top flight - most of them with Dundee United - and with 22 Scottish Under 21 caps.  Currently at Torquay, he has just finished a degree in Professional Sports Writing and Broadcasting at Staffordshire University.  He can be followed on Twitter.