For success-starved Scottish football fans the sight of a young man called Gilmour stylishly carrying the ball through midfield in a major final, wearing the famous dark blue, is the stuff that dreams are made of.
But while the football world waits for whatever the world has in store for 18-year old Billy Gilmour, the anointed Prince of Stamford Bridge, in the coming years, those with longer memories will recall that we’ve been here before. Namely, with another Ayrshireman called Gilmour, a skilful central midfielder, who started his career at Ibrox at the turn of the century.
Brian Gilmour, now 33, and a coach of Rangers B Team with Kevin Thomson as part of an academy restructure, was part of Archie Gemmill and Tommy Wilson’s young Scotland squad that battled to a place in the final of the 2006 UEFA European Under-19 Championship. He was also the only Rangers player selected for the finals in Poland.
The young Scots enjoyed a tournament to remember, as they were narrowly defeated by Spain 2-1 in the final. And for a football-mad nation desperate for any kind of success for the eight years after qualifying for the World Cup in France, the young Scots offered a tantalising glimpse of a bright new future. But it was a future that worked out rather better for some than others.
Five of Gemmill’s squad went on to represent Scotland at senior international level – Lee Wallace, Garry Kenneth, Graham Dorrans, Robert Snodgrass and Steven Fletcher. Others such as Dundee United Greg Cameron and Norwich’s Andrew Cave Brown could not consolidate on their early potential. Celtic’s Charlie Grant, part of a highly rated midfield club and country pairing with Simon Ferry, was forced to retire from the game aged 24, through injury; others found their level lower down the leagues.
There is no doubt Scotland U19s were a serious team. They defeated a France side containing Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri (ex-Arsenal and Man City) en route to Poland. The Euros tournament itself featured future stars such as Gerard Pique, Juan Mata, Arda Turan and Merouane Fellaini.
For Brian Gilmour, life has taken a somewhat circuitous route with a return to Rangers, where he looked after the Ibrox clubs U16s and U17s before the establishing of his role with a newly created Rangers B side, reflecting his burgeoning reputation within the coaching fraternity.
The move into coaching has been part of a plan that came together in his late twenties. He says: “I’d been on the road for seven years – Finland, England, Iceland. I’d returned home, and I was taking advantage of an offer to train with Ayr, during the close season in Iceland. But things took a different turn.”
What should have been a temporary stop-off ended up as five-and-a-half year stay at his local club and the chance to reflect on a peripatetic 15-year career with an itinerary that’s taken in the highways and byways of the professional game.
It was at Ayr United in his mid-twenties that he began to really focus on the future. He says: “With all players there’s a dawning realisation that it ‘isn’t all about you’, about your needs and ambitions, about how and where you want to play and the future. That came for me in the form of coaching. And that became my plan.”
Playing at Ayr, and training two nights per week there, the midfielder cut his teeth as a coach in the club’s academy and with the SFA at the Grange Academy Performance School in Kilmarnock. He also got the opportunity to return part-time to Rangers.
In June 2017, still aged only 30, Gilmour was offered the change to go in full-time at Rangers, working with the club’s U18s. And it left him with a decision to make.
“A full-time return to Rangers had always been part of my career plan and ambitions but I hadn’t envisaged that the opportunity would come along so quickly and the decision I made was to hang up my boots.”
He says: “Overall I spent nine years at Rangers first time around but looking back it was very challenging, and rightly so, to break through. Although it never feels as clear-cut at the time, when you are playing, because footballers are fundamentally optimistic and believe in their own ability.”
But of course, the odds of success at a big club are naturally stacked against youngsters and no more so than at Rangers during a peak era of success for the Ibrox club.
“You realise the calibre of the competition at Rangers when you look back. I was there for the reigns of Alex McLeish, Paul Le Guen and then Walter Smith at the start of his second spell as manager. Malky Thomson, John Brown, Ian Durrant, Tommy Wilson and Billy and Davie Kirkwood were among the coaches I had and I gained so much from all of their knowledge. And in the early 2000s the players that were ahead of the young guys in my position included Barry Ferguson, Mikel Arteta and then Alex Rae – internationals and big game players in a squad of internationals and big game players.”
He says: “Then you look at younger players who had their grounding at Rangers in my time. Guys like Ross McCormack, Alan Hutton, Charlie Adam, Chris Burke, Steven Smith. All good, good players that have gone on to have great careers, some of them right at the top of the game. But that is the way it is at a big club. I think my experience of that gives me a level of insight that helps when boys I am coaching ask for specific advice. It potentially might help that I’ve been where they are now to share ideas and guidance.”
He says: “You can talk about a philosophy of playing, your sessions and understanding detail. But even where you’ve got a group of clued in and confident boys, as I do, coaching, at every level, is about people. It is all about people, communication and about relationships.”
Gilmour says: “At Rangers I was a young player at a big club with extremely high expectations for every season. At Clyde I stepped out of my comfort zone into a club with young players desperate to make their mark, often after disappointment at bigger clubs. At Queen of the South I was in a strong dressing room with hardened, experienced pros. I played in England and Scandinavia. At Ayr I was a senior player in a successful young side as a part-time player in a full-time league. So, I can imagine some of the scenarios that these young players might face in the future in their own careers.”
Thinking about both his own career and Scotland’s class of 2006 he says: “There isn’t a player alive who won’t have some kind of regrets. Even Messi, when he looks back on the end of his career, will probably say privately that there are things he could have done differently. It is just the nature of football.”
Having watched Brian Gilmour’s career as a scout over a number of years it leaves an impression that not only did he become a victim of his own versatility later in his career at Ayr but he would possibly have flourished had he moved to a football culture – such as Spain, Italy or Portugal for example – more suited to his abilities as a clever, technical footballer with excellent vision and creativity.
Gilmour’s prodigious gifts were typified by an outrageous goal he scored from within his own half against Dunfermline at Somerset Park in December 2013. But in Scotland, he was always destined to be a square peg in a round hole and that reality is reflected in the variety of roles he was asked to play during his career by different managers at his various clubs.
However, Gilmour himself believes that his story is not so different to many others, making the point that every dressing room contains very talented players.
He says: “It is what it is at times and every player has a story. I remember playing against guys in the lower leagues in England – 6ft 2” tall, could run like the wind, touch like an angel and you’d think why is this guy not playing in a top team? But there’s only a few slots to go around at any time and ultimately players end up at the levels they’re at for a reason, whether through opportunity, injuries, mentality or whatever.”
The young Rangers coach was forced to confront the reality of this game of small margins when he was present for a youth team presentation about Juan Mata, as a guest of Man United. Mata, of course, was a star of Spain’s victory in the 2006 U19 Euros final against Gilmour’s Scotland.
He says: “The presentation was about all the various strings to Mata’s bow – his charity foundation, his fashion line – making the point about the opportunities that exist for the very top players with the money and the lifestyles they have. Really, it is a different world but fascinating to see.”
Gilmour says: “Maybe I should have been more decisive and got out to play games earlier. Certainly, getting out there was a steep learning curve, an introduction into what men’s football is all about. At Clyde Joe Miller was very clear. He’d put together a young, hungry team and he told us: ‘This is your platform. Go and get yourself a good move’. At Queen of the South I was in a team that got to the 2008 Cup Final and then played in Europe. It was a dressing room packed with experience, good pros that had played at a high level. I picked up so much. Just by being in that environment.”
But there was no question of the wandering midfielder putting down football roots in Dumfries. “My agent called to say that the club had agreed a transfer and that I was off to Finland to FC Haka. My first thought was: why would I want to go there? It just wasn’t the norm then, especially for young players. But I’ve always had that mentality that I want to go and learn, whatever the experience is. I threw myself into it and I never looked back. I have played in four countries. I like to learn and be exposed to new ideas.”
Certainly Gilmour’s thirst for new experiences and appetite to learn is reflected in a CV that can only be described as diverse.
“With Lincoln it is 46 games a season, two games a week often, hotels, training where you are just ticking over between games. The opposite extreme is Iceland where I played with KA based in Akureyri in the north of Iceland. There’s a short, condensed summer season crammed into six months, and with breaks based around regular training camps. Finland was very progressive training-wise and also very sociable and family-orientated. You were close together as a group of families 24/7 and you had to fit in to get along as a team.
He says: “Finland was also a different style of football. It was a tactical style of football, fluid and expansive, especially in the final third, and there was an emphasis on the sports science and analysis side of the game. It is the norm now everywhere, but this was new to me and really central to everything the players did. I loved being exposed to that side of the game and I am still fascinated by it.”
It was in Finland that Gilmour also first encountered a more nuanced view of his role as a midfielder. I was a number 8 in Finland, a box-to-box player. At various points I’ve been a 4 (a holding player), a 10 (a playmaker), I played wide right under Mark Roberts and occasionally even a wing back under Ian McCall at Ayr. It was at Somerset Park, in the League One winning side of 2017-18 that he was also reunited with another veteran of Scotland’s U19 Euros adventure in Jamie Adams, who had also been a teammate at Queen of the South.
He says: “When I started out at Rangers, you were a central midfielder, expected to do everything, an all-rounder, box-to-box player. Barry Ferguson was the player I looked up to and wanted to emulate. He was the reference point for all the young players as a home-grown player in the first team. And even more so for me as we played in the same position.”
He says that though Rangers remains a big organisation in the abstract, the coaches and staff work hard to make it a home from home, a human-scale club based around familiar relationships.
“There’s a togetherness, a collective will to improve and get better at every level of the club and that comes from the top and all the way through the levels. There’s a lot of people working at the Training Centre that were there when I was at Rangers the first time and that sense of familiarity and continuity is really important as it helps the boys feel secure, that they can go and express themselves.”
Gilmour says that the global nature of the game is even more apparent in the age of social media. While the midfielder counts his fellow Ayrshiremen and Rangers youth teammates John Johnstone (Arthurlie) and Scott Agnew (the prodigiously talented East Fife and ex-Scotland U19 midfielder) as his longest-standing friends in football, the world of former coaches, friends and teammates is only ever a few clicks away.
“From a coaching perspective, that’s a fantastic thing. Before, you’d lose touch with people when you moved on. That’s not the case now and it means that you not only maintain those connections but you also have access to all that expertise and perspectives on things that are maybe different to what you’d usually encounter.”
Given the similarities in their backgrounds as two Ayrshire-born midfielders who have started out at Rangers, excelled at youth international level and of course share the same surname, it is only natural that Brian Gilmour has also taken a special interest in the career of his Chelsea namesake Billy Gilmour.
He says: “I have enjoyed seeing Billy develop over the years both at Rangers and in the SFA Performance School at The Grange. He deserves everything he’s got coming to him. He’s a humble young man and a top player. He plays with courage and that desire to go and express his talent. That is infectious to see and clearly he’s being well looked after by people that think the world of him.”
He says: “He’s also coming through at a good time for young players. Look across all the top leagues and there are notable examples of teenagers breaking through.”
Currently coaching Rangers prospects nearest the first team, Gilmour says there is satisfaction both in seeing players he’s worked with progressing through the age levels to the fringes of the first team and also a sense of anticipation of what is yet to come from the players hotly tipped by the coaches of younger age groups. Although one of his former charges, the right back Nathan Patterson is pressing his claims for the first team after gaining vital experience in domestic and continental cup ties, Gilmour is reluctant to saddle specific players in his charge with an expectation of success at a key point in their development.
He says: “There are players right now that are all looking to press their claims at first team level. All those boys have a real desire to better themselves and pursue their journey as far as they can. The connection they have to one another will help them push each other on. You look further down the age groups and of course, the coaches all talk. There’s always that anticipation about players coming through and that’s also a large part of the daily satisfaction I take from working here.”
He laughs: “I have lots of ambitions. I am interested in leadership, management, always learning, but I love coaching. I love being on the grass with the players. It is something I want to be doing for a very long time.”