For outsiders it is hard to identify any form of success at St Mirren. The club has struggled to stay afloat in the Premier League whilst a win in the Scottish League Cup in 2012-13 offered a rare moment of glory. Success isn’t something that you typically associate with the Paisley club.
Look closer, however, and you will start to see a different picture. Their first team regularly features six players – Mark McAusland, Sean Kelly, Kenny McLean, Thomas Reilly, John McGinn and Jason Naismith – who started their careers in the club’s youth teams. Of that group, four have represented Scotland at Under 21 level. Many more have either already had a taste of first team football or else are on the periphery of the first team squad.
By any measure, then, that which St Mirren have in place is a hugely successful youth system.
The man who has overseen much of the development of this system is David Longwell who began working for the club as Assistant SFA Development Officer and rose through the ranks until he was given the role of Head of Youth Development in 2005. From that position he has helped shape St Mirren’s approach to the development of players with the result being a constant stream of talented players who are ready to step into the first team.
And the emphasis truly has to fall on that word: talented.
“First and foremost we look for technique,” he says resolutely as he explains what matters most for St. Mirren when they’re looking at a young player. “There are still too many clubs who go for the bigger players. We don’t believe in that. Look at the likes of Suarez and Aguero who certainly aren’t big but they’re among the best players in the world because of what they can do with the ball.”
“So we guard ourselves and are careful not to go for the big strong players who typically stand out in youth games. We focus a lot on technique and regardless keep on working to improve it.”
“Other than that, we look to see if they have game intelligence, whether they are scouring to see what is around them and if they have good movement. If you get kids who have also got pace and got strength then it is even better.”
“There is a fine balance that you have to try and get to. There are players who are stronger at a younger age whilst others develop later on and you have to guide them properly.”
Having been at the club for so long, Longwell can trace the club’s upturn in fortunes - as far as the club’s youth structure is concerned – to a specific moment in time: when the club decided to sell their old stadium, Love Street.
“The biggest change came when the board of directors sold the old stadium to finance the building of a new stadium with the money left over being invested in a training centre,” he confirms. “We have our own training facility with 3rd generation pitches, academy centre as well as three grass pitches.”
“On top of that, managers who have come in have been encouraged to look within for new players.”
This latter point is of particular importance to Longwell. “When I was younger and worked as a community coach I got to appreciate the importance of having strong local links. We’ve had players like Stevie Mallan who was picked up from our community coaching and is now in our first team. I’ve always believed that these players have a stronger affinity with the club.”
“St. Mirren is very much a community club that is in touch with the area.”
You would imagine that a club with such a track record for giving its own players an opportunity would have little difficulty convincing young players to join them. However, it isn’t always the case.
“Scotland is dominated by Celtic and Rangers so you will get parents who are swayed by the Old Firm. We’ve sat down with players to explain that with us they will get more of an opportunity. We compare our first team with those of the Old Firm, showing that we have more home grown players. We explain that there are more foreign players involved at the top end. Still, a lot of them support the Old Firm and you still get a lot of players who go for the bigger club.”
Not that there are many bigger clubs – youth wise – in Scotland. Indeed the Scottish FA has awarded them a five star rating after evaluating their facilities, level of coaching as well as curriculum. Only Rangers and Celtic have a higher rating.
“There are far bigger clubs who have got a lower status. We just have a standard of working hard in order to keep improving and the rating signifies that we have everything in place to develop players.”
Longwell can talk with such authority because, as the club’s Head of Youth Development, he is the one who has to map out what happens at the club.
“I oversee what takes place at each level and develop our coaching strategy. We focus on the technical aspect which, at top end, I do not think has been done enough in Scotland lately.”
“A massive part our work goes into ensuring that they are comfortable with both feet whilst we also work on their football intelligence. The way we coach ensures that there is a lot of discovery learning which means that the children work things out for themselves and find solutions to problems themselves rather than relying on the coach to tell them what to do.”
“On matchday there is a big shift as we always look to play from the back. The goalkeeper must always be looking how best to pass the ball, for instance. As teams lock on to you in order to stifle you we coach them so that there is always someone free. Therefor we teach the kids to try and look at their position as well as that of those around them. In general, we do try to develop a style that is attractive and exciting.”
Those, however, are the major brush strokes of the St Mirren painting; the philosophy with which the players are schooled. True, you need to have that vision if you want to develop players, but you also need to look at what each and every player needs in order to fulfil his potential.
Once again, St. Mirren execute this to perfection. “I do a lot of one on one chats with the player to make them understand what they have to work on. They all have individual programmes to try to advance them and we speak to sport science people to determine where they are physically.”
This is particularly the case when there are players who are coming towards the end of their youth career and looking to advance among the professionals. “We are ready to let players go on loan but only if it is the right club,” Longwell explains. “For instance we would not send a player to a club that only look to launch the ball. It must have the right coaches and the right style for our players to develop.”
“We’re quite lucky in that teams playing in the Under 20 League are allowed to play five
overage players. We don't play one player like that whereas other clubs play them week in, week out. “As a result, our kids are playing older and stronger players.”
“That said we realise that there are players who progress quickly but with others you have to be patient. Some kids ready at 18 whilst with others you have to keep on working. We let them develop at their own pace.”
Throughout the interview, Longwell had come across as someone who not only was extremely knowledgeable – something that you would expect in a Head of Youth Development (even if it isn’t always there) – but who also as someone with the rare talent of developing strategies seen elsewhere to fit into his own template.
It comes of little surprise that he has done every coaching course possible, including the UEFA Pro Licence. It is even less surprising that he used such courses not only to learn off the official material but also to see what those around him were doing.
“You look at what the likes of Guardiola and Mourinho who are always trying to evolve the game. You dilute it down and see what you can learn off them. There are also many aspects that you can learn from people at your own club. We’ve had some very experienced managers but also younger people can come up with fresh ideas.”
“It is important that you keep learning over time, watching loads of football, be it on TV or live. You watch tactics always trying to learn.”
That desire to learn is embodied throughout the whole academy structure at St. Mirren and is one of the main reasons for their growing status. Ultimately, however, it is largely down to how they treat their players at all levels.
“Kids need opportunity and we're giving them that here at St Mirren."
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