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.
ONE LION RAMPANT
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.
THE SPANISH EFFECT
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.
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.
UNDER 20 LEAGUE
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.”
TRUST IN YOUTH
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.