This is the first installment of a three part series about the future of Scottish football.
I might be stating the obvious here, but the standard of Scottish football is not good enough. Scotland last qualified for a major championship in 1998. Even then, they finished bottom of their group at the World Cup in France. Over a decade spent in the International wilderness of non- qualification, equates with not producing enough talented individuals to enable the national team to compete at the top level.
A DIFFERENT CULTURE
The sportswriter and broadcaster, Jim Traynor, has made two definitive documentaries on the state of the Scottish game, and he believes that the problem is deeper than the parlous state of school sports. Social factors can also contribute to fewer kids making the grade. “Social depravation is rife and it’s not like a couple of generations ago when people didn’t have a lot but they had a community spirit, now you don’t have that.” He believes such deprivation has contributed to a society where many of today’s working class parents, often struggling with alcohol and drug problems themselves, lack both the parenting skills and money to support young aspiring footballers. Those living below the poverty line don’t have a chance, as sport and football is the last thing on a parent’s mind.
Traynor understands that in the past the lifeblood of the Scottish game was kids playing on the streets. Top talent like Johnston, Baxter and Dalglish honed their skills in the housing schemes, but he dismisses the continued romanticism attached to that era as “sentimental tosh”. Those days will never be recreated, partly because there are too many cars on the streets nowadays. The cul-de-sac in the Airdrie council estate where I grew up played host to some truly epic games of football involving kids who lived two or three streets away, but Craighead Street now resembles a car park. It’s hard enough finding a space when I visit my mum and dad, never mind having a kick about. Traynor himself notes that, “The only way we can get back to that sort of street environment where everyone is included is in taking it back to schools and making it a proper part of the curriculum”. He adds, “You need to give these kids something they can believe in. If a kid can get into his school’s football team then it gives him something to aim for. I think football has got a responsibility”.
The Scottish Government recognises that responsibility must be shared, especially when a healthier generation could benefit society way beyond the realm of sport. In his Review of Scottish Football, former First Minister Henry McLeish called for “local government, Scottish football and the private sector to work together to create a powerful investment vehicle”. A large part of those funds will go toward addressing the problem of our woefully inadequate football facilities. Stewart Regan is confident the “powerful relationship” the SFA are building with the government (Sports Minister Shona Robison in particular) will make a big difference. Holyrood has certainly made a substantial commitment, contributing £25m toward the creation of a National Performance Centre which has football at its core. It will be home to the National Football Academy, and the commitment to the project by both the Government and the Scottish FA (who have earmarked £15m for the performance strategy over the next four years) is an encouraging example of people in power acting on McLeish’s recommendations.
But as a nation with football as its first sport, it’s not enough.
We are embarrassingly ill-equipped, as Stewart Regan explains. “In Iceland, the population is around three hundred thousand people, and they have 22 full size indoor football facilities. In Scotland, we have three for a population of six million. With a winter that seems to be getting worse and lasting longer, we need to be trying to look after our kids’ development”. Kids aren’t the only ones who benefit. Our professional clubs struggle for adequate training facilities whenever the Scottish weather turns ugly, and will often travel great distances to use one of these centres; but in my opinion, whilst a useful tool in the development of young players, there’s no substitute for playing on grass.
That said, when the cold weather comes in, these facilities are worth every penny. The overall standard of astro-turf pitches has certainly improved. However, the Toryglen facility, situated yards from Hampden Park in Glasgow, doesn’t come up to scratch. It was the first of its kind and while the pitch has the same dimensions as Celtic Park, the surface has deteriorated badly. A major advantage in having an artificial surface is that the ball runs truer and more predictably. There should be no bobbles like you often get on grass. Hence the Scottish FA’s willingness to coach more of our youngsters on 3G or 4G pitches.
Having played a bounce game for Dunfermline Athletic on the Toryglen pitch in January, I can tell you that is not always the case. It was one of the poorest astro-turf pitches I’ve ever played on, and it didn’t do the calf injury that I was recovering from at the time any good whatsoever. So while we do need more of these facilities, and there are plans for more to be built in the near future, the authorities and our governing body must make sure they are of a high standard and are maintained properly. Otherwise the money spent will be going to waste.
The lack of good facilities was highlighted in his review, but Henry McLeish also noted that there is a problem with access to some existing infrastructure. That’s why Stewart Regan wants to use schools to their full potential. He’s challenged the government to make school playing fields and sports halls available to use after 3 o’clock. It’s a basic idea of how to get better use out of existing facilities. Obviously there might be concerns over staffing issues, but it’s a sensible short-term attempt to alleviate the problem.
The report acknowledges there have been improvements at a grass-roots level, but the focus thereafter has to be on the development of young players that can come through and benefit our game at both club and national level. Starting this August, the Scottish FA aims to do this by enrolling 20 of the best 12 to 16 year olds from seven regions across the country into Regional Performance Schools. Over a four year period, the youngsters will receive a minimum of five coaching sessions a week, focusing on skills and development. Prominent youth coaches and four ex-players make up the team of seven coaches, each assigned to an individual school. They are tasked with the development of these players during this vital stage of their progression, working together with clubs and the school to provide the kids with more quality time with a football alongside their normal education. The idea was borne from a successful pilot in Falkirk, and the first ever Performance Director, Mark Wotte, hopes that after the seven schools are up and running, they can increase that to 10 or 12.
The fact that the Scottish FA have created a position specifically to monitor the direction of player performance shows how serious they are about tackling the youth development issue. It’s not surprising, considering the Review recommends applying the 10,000 hour rule (popularised by author Malcolm Gladwell) as the quality practice time needed over ten years to become an expert in your field. Mark Wotte breaks it down: “You need to give kids six to eight training sessions a week if you want them to improve”...“10,000 hours is for athletes in individual sports, but I think in football, if you can give them 6,000 to 7,000 hours of quality contact time with the ball in ten years (which is 12 to 15 hours a week) then that’s already an improvement”.
Coaches need to know the ages and the stages”. He expands, “Focusing on the technical side and playing small-sided games with not much space will allow them to develop their skills in a natural way for a game situation - let them play forever”.
According to the Scottish FA’s player pathway, at 13 years of age competition will kick in and trophies will be contested, but I think this is a little bit too late. I would argue that a winning philosophy should be fostered from an earlier age to encourage kids to aspire to be the best. As long as it doesn’t take over from the main focus, which has to be the technical development of the player, I can’t see anything wrong with nurturing a desire to win. Jim Traynor agrees. He says, “Firstly you have to make it enjoyable, then introduce incentives and the natural instincts will come through. You won’t achieve unless you want to be a winner, don’t curb that. The Scottish FA keep saying that winning is not important, but it is important”.
LESSONS FROM THE BEST
It’s a radical programme, similar to some of the most successful academies on the continent, and although Wotte wasn’t the man to come up with the idea (that was Jim Fleeting), he feels his past experience makes him an excellent choice to oversee this new venture. The Dutchman has worked at just about every level in various capacities. He’s managed in most tiers in Holland including numerous seasons in the Eredivise, was Director of Football at Feyenoord, and Academy Director at Southampton before taking over the reins at the St. Mary’s Stadium for a short spell in 2009. But it’s his earlier experiences with youth that Wotte notes as standing him in good stead for his current role. He said, “In my early years I was a P.E. teacher as well as academy manager, and I linked the two together in a sort of performance school twenty years ago, where the boys trained six or seven times in a week, which was revolutionary back then, and that idea was also adapted by other clubs in Holland.” The Dutch FA, the clubs and the education authority work together to school the elite players close to the clubs they are attached to. For example, Feyenoord take the best players in an 80km radius and have a school close to their ground where they educate them and coach them on a daily basis. They’ve been voted the best youth Academy in The Netherlands two years in a row, and Assistant manager Giovanni Van Bronkhurst proudly states that 80% of his current first team are products of the youth system.
It’s not only Holland that has a reputation for consistently producing world-class players through an academy system. Germany’s humiliation at Euro 2000, where they finished bottom of their group, prompted their clubs and the DFB (German football’s Governing body) to get together and tackle the problem head on. They focused on youth, and are now reaping the rewards with young homegrown players populating the Bundesliga and also contributing to the rebirth of the National team. In his BBC documentary, ‘A Match For Europe’, Jim Traynor uses Germany as an example of the benefits of focusing on youth, but notes that it was also down to necessity as well as choice. He said, “Despite financial hardships caused by faltering broadcast deals, significant funds were devoted to youth development even at the expense of wages in the Bundesliga, which in turn helped reduce the number of foreigners playing in the top division, and created opportunities for young players to play in the first team”. He cites Werder Bremen as a particular success story with wider reaching benefits for Germany’s domestic game. 40 teams are linked to Werder Bremen and 100 players from that academy are scattered throughout the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2. He states: “That’s what an academy should do. The players who don’t make it at a particular club should be populating a lower league”.
A NEW APPROACH
While we always had Largs as a training base for our national teams, I always wondered what it would be like to have a set-up for our best players that not only educated them, but where the daily routine revolved around structured football coaching. I can only imagine what the standards are like at today’s most famous youth academy, Barcelona’s new Masia (the Oriol Tort Training Center) and whilst our clubs are keen to follow this and similar models, it’s not so simple. Stewart Regan explains: “It’s more the principles than a carbon copy. I think in an ideal world we’d love to have our own Clairefontaine and our own premier schools of excellence at club level, but it’ll come down to cash and availability. We can’t be responsible for every single child playing football in Scotland, but we can develop an elite pathway for those who are going to play for the National team.”
Making sure the best players are selected is key to the whole programme, and Regan recognises this. “Around the age of 11 years old we’re identifying the most talented kids in Scotland. In addition to that we’re organising Regional Performance Squads as well as the schools to bring the best of the best together across the seven regions.” He continues, “They will then play inter-squad matches which will allow us to pick our national squad at that age group.” Mark Wotte adds, “It’s our obligation to the talented players. From the trial games, we’ve selected an A and a B squad with 22 players in each, because at 15 years old you’re inconsistent or you’re growing. We will continue to work with those 44 players before deciding on the team because maybe next week you will see one of those players and he might surprise you”. Regan concludes, “That squad will meet regularly at the new National Performance Centre and will get support in terms of coaching, but we’ll also look at things like diet, sports psycology, biomechanics, nutrition - the whole package, to try and make a rounded athlete”.
A good coach working within a driven development programme is essential, but there are so many other factors that go into producing the next top player. The increased focus on sport and fitness at a young age along with the Scottish FA’s new Performance strategy will hopefully give our kids the tools to make it in the professional game at the highest level. It’s essential for the future of Scottish football that the national side are able to qualify and compete at major championships again. I’m hopeful that with the overwhelming realisation by our governing body and others who can influence our game that we have a lot of work to do, we’re able to take that vitally important step on a long road to making the goal a reality.
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.