Sitting at Hampden as Scotland concededa late Robert Lewandowski goal to confirm that our bid to qualify for Euro 2016 had failed, I found myself wondering where the next qualification for a major tournament was going to come from. Where were we going wrong? I reluctantly concluded that the problem lay with the quality of player at our disposal. If you take this as the reality you are faced with two options: accept that this is just the way things are and always will be; or try to pinpoint areas that could be changed to improve our chances in the future.
What could we change? As someone who has spent a number of years in the Scottish pro youth development system the obvious starting point is to change the way in which we nurture the young talent that we have. I by no means claim to have all the answers and believe that the system is doing a number of things well, but from my experience there are a few key areas in which the system could change in order to increase our chances of producing a better quality of player.
One such area that could be changed from my own experience is over-emphasis on fitness from a young age. Don’t get me wrong, I am not playing down the importance of fitness levels for a professional footballer. Without high levels of fitness a player would be unable to last the full 90 minutes and maintain a high level of skill. My concern is that it is the focus from too young an age. For as long as I can remember playing football, training sessions consisted of getting the ‘hard stuff’ out the way before ending on the ‘proper football’, usually something like a conditioned game.
This same blueprint was used at both boys’ club and pro youth level, the difference coming in the standard and difficulty of the drills. Often a shout could be heard from the coach that “if you put the hard work in with the running then we’ll get the ball out”… a shout which I am inclined to say might be unique to the training sessions of these isles. Somehow I find it hard to believe that kids in South American countries such as Brazil and Argentina are taking part in similarly structured sessions to those of our own. Could this be one reason for the severe gulf in technical ability between the players of our nation and theirs?
The reasoning for this structure of training seems logical as it gives the players an incentive to keep going and to work as hard as they can during the fitness work, with the reward of something more enjoyable at the end of it all. However, this mentality neglects a number of key points.
Firstly, if a player is pushing their body to the limit towards the start of a session on fitness work, then he or she will naturally be fatigued when this part of the session comes to an end. This surely must have an effect on the quality of any proceeding drills aimed to develop a player’s technical ability. Thinking back to my own playing days I can remember the feeling of my legs being like jelly while still trying to pluck the ball from the air or spraying a 20-yard pass to a teammate as part of a drill. An argument could be made that this is replicating a situation you might find yourself in towards the end of a game when your body is tired and you have to power through, but at a young age surely the object of training should be to increase the quality of a player’s skill set to the highest level possible?
Most players in their early teens who are attached to a Scottish club will normally be training two or three nights a week and tend to have good natural fitness, good enough to play at least 90 minutes of football. Running them into the ground seems to serve very little purpose other than decreasing the quality of other parts of the training session. Introducing intense fitness training too early on could also turn potential stars of the future off the game before they have even had a chance to properly fall in love with it. Sitting in a car going to training as a young boy knowing that I was about to be subjected to a good period of hard running was always a horrible feeling. Luckily the prospect of a game at the weekend was enough to motivate me to keep going back and working hard. However I understand how this could have been too much for some at such a young age. You could say that this perhaps would show a mental weakness which would have put an end to their footballing aspirations anyway, but people change as they grow up and this toughness could have been developed given time. Could we have turned the next Messi away from the game before they even had time to show the world what they could do?
Even when this doesn’t turn the players showing great promise away we seem to be unable to get players to fulfil their potential and really kick on when they get to a certain age. Remember John Fleck, supposedly the next Wayne Rooney? Remember Islam Feruz who moved to Chelsea but spent a part of last season on the bench at Easter Road? Part of the problem I feel is the star treatment given to those who are performing above everyone else at their age group.
One such story that did the rounds during my years in the pro youth system concerned a certain up-and-coming youth player at a Scottish club who was allowed to miss training one night a week so he could play five-a-side with his mates. This luxury was supposedly only afforded to him and not to any of the other members of the squad at his age group. How can this be good for the development of a promising talent? It is understandable that a club in Scotland will feel threatened by bigger clubs with more financial clout down south and will try to keep their brightest talents happy in whatever way they can to avoid losing them. But at the same time, a player so young having so much power is only going to produce negative outcomes. Nine times out of ten this will only serve to inflate the ego of the player, which can and consistently does end in unfulfilled potential.
Similar to the idea of special treatment of individuals is that of special treatment in general of players at the best clubs in comparison to the players at other clubs in Scotland. It is no secret that two clubs have a much bigger stature than the majority of those they are playing against, which arguably produces a mentality of superiority. This mentality often trickles down to the players who pull on these two clubs’ respective jerseys at youth level which, due to the attractiveness of these two clubs, tend to be the brightest prospects. When you are consistently told you are the best you begin to believe you are the best, which for someone who is 12 or 13 years old is not a good thing in my personal opinion. If you think you’ve made it before you’ve actually achieved anything then performances will naturally suffer, and the hard workers from other clubs tend to progress beyond those who you could say were the most naturally gifted.
There are numerous stories in the Scottish game of the brightest talents at youth level not going on to live up to the promise they were showing, and conversely there are numerous stories of those who were not the most naturally gifted forging a decent career for themselves. Surely the special treatment of individuals and of certain groups must play a part in this.
Another reality of youth football in Scotland is the emphasis put on winning. It would be easy to pass this off as something that is only really a problem at boys’ club level where coaches may be parents or frustrated former amateur footballers who are using it as a chance for their own glory. But from my experience this is not something that is exclusive to boys’ club level but also infiltrates the pro-youth system. I have played for and against teams within this system that have set up with a back five and their biggest striker up top at under-13 and 14 level against teams they believe to be better than them.
The argument for this would be that it is preparing them for first-team football, where such tactics are often employed, or that it hopefully prevents a significant scoreline which could destroy a young player’s confidence. I would counter this by saying that it is the completely wrong attitude. These leagues are youth development leagues and at such a young age should be focusing on developing football skills and not a win-at-all-costs mentality. This mentality will naturally develop later when there is more at stake. Perhaps when the focus is shifted to encouraging players to develop their vital technical skills then we might begin to see Scottish players compete at the very top of the game again.
We are very good at claiming that this is not the case and that winning is not everything. I have been involved in training sessions where a coach has said in front of the full squad that they want us to express ourselves on the pitch and try new things, yet that very weekend I’ve seen the same coach shouting and bawling at a player who had attempted and failed at that very thing. It appears that in the heat of the moment the true desires and intentions come out and the mask slips.
Or how about the old school ‘let your opponent know you’re there in the first tackle’ piece of advice to a youngster? You would have to be naive to think these sort of things don’t go on in professional football, but I am of the opinion that once again that these little tricks and pieces of gamesmanship can be learned later on down the line. For now, let them just play the game the way it should be played without fear of retribution from a coach or a boot from an opponent.
I fear the biggest problem facing the development of young players in Scottish football is one that is much more difficult to overcome. From my experience playing at youth level a number of promising players succumb to the lure of things such as underage drinking at around age 15 or 16. The booze culture in Scotland is no secret, and is prevalent among an ever-younger age group. By the time you are 16 in Scotland the majority of your peers at school will be out drinking at the weekends, whether that be out on the streets or in someone’s house. For many the fear of being outcast will lead them to join in, which will include a number of individuals attached to Scottish clubs. This causes problems especially considering most youth games are on a Sunday. What does an individual do if a friend from school is having a party on the Saturday night but they have a big game the next day? Will they stay in on the Saturday? Possibly. Will they be tempted to take the risk and do both? All too often have I heard the phrase “he’d have been a cracking player if he hadn’t found booze” it may sound like a cliché, but all too true the majority of the time.
The question is: how can we tackle this problem? In all honestly I have no idea. Young people aren’t stupid and are aware of the dangers inherent in things such as alcohol. The education on these matters is there but the warnings are being ignored. I feel that this is because our society tells us that this is the only fun and normal thing to do at weekends. Who are the generations these young people have to look up to?
According to recent figures a nation of individuals that have increased their alcohol consumption for the second year running, with the equivalent of every adult drinking 41 bottles of vodka per year. It’s not the best kind of role model to have if you are looking to become a professional athlete that takes your country to the next level. The scale and persistence of the drinking culture in Scotland leads to a situation where only the very strong willed will be able to resist. Finding someone that is both very strong willed and very talented seems to be proving all too difficult in Scottish football.
I am only one ex-pro youth player and my experiences in the Scottish development system might be vastly different to others. However I feel that I might not be the only one that has these views.
The focus on fitness from far too young an age is a problem that could be fixed relatively easily with the right advice and training to coaches. The fitness first before working on skill blueprint is one that has been accepted in the Scottish game for a number of years and may take a while to alter, but with persistence and consistency it can be overcome.
Similarly, changing the mentality of winning at all costs from a young age may take time, but the long-term benefits to Scottish football could be huge.
Altering the way that ‘star’ players are treated is a bit more difficult as the ever increasing lure of mega-rich English clubs encourages the need to keep these players happy to avoid their departure. Yet, as explained previously, these star players at youth level often fail to live up to their promise, so I feel that treating them in the same way as every other player is a risk worth taking in a bid to avoid overconfidence or an inflated ego hampering their football career.
The final problem that I pointed out, the problem of the attraction to activities such as underage drinking, is one that cannot be sorted out by Scottish football’s governing bodies alone. It is a product of the society that we live in and has become the norm for the majority of adolescents.
As I said, I am only one ex-pro youth player and these points could be taken as bitter ramblings of someone that failed to make the grade. But, I strongly believe that from my experiences in the game these are some of the issues that are holding back the progression of young Scottish footballers. I can only hope that those in positions of power realise the changes that need to be made sooner rather than later.