Falkirk FC handed players and coaches an early Christmas present last year with the announcement that they planned to scrap their highly regarded youth system after December 31.
The move comes as part of a wider strategic review of club business named Towards the Premiership and a statement released by the club pointed at the failings of Falkirk’s first team squad over the past eight years as the catalyst behind the decision.
The club will redirect funds from the Forth Valley Football Academy – a joint-venture between Falkirk, Stenhousemuir and East Stirlingshire which is heavily backed by Falkirk FC – into the club’s first team spending in an attempt to get the club back into Scottish football’s top flight.
What sort of message does this send to aspiring young footballers across Scotland? And at a time when the future of the youth game looks fairly bright – what could the decision mean for youth development strategies at clubs across the country?
A large chunk of Scottish football’s ‘American Dream’ is to grow up with hopes of playing for the team you support. To work hard at school and with your local football team and to get noticed by the scouts of a professional club; to run, kick and jump your way through the ranks and to finally pull on the first team jersey, walking out at the stadium you used to go along to as a kid and waving to your parents in the stand.
The emergence of the English Premier League in recent years has created another rung on the ladder of the young Scottish footballer’s dream – namely the hope that one day you’ll secure a move to one of the world’s biggest leagues, rubbing shoulders with household names on the way.
A number of Falkirk’s recent academy graduates can say they have achieved some, if not all, of the above. Scott Arfield made his first team debut at the age of 19 and went on to make 124 appearances for the club just 14 miles from his home. A successful spell at the Falkirk Stadium earned him a move to Huddersfield Town where he played 119 games over three seasons in League One and the Championship.
Arfield is one of a number of players who has emerged from the Falkirk academy in recent years; he is undoubtedly a player youngsters have looked up to for inspiration. Currently plying his trade for Premier League side Burnley in his fifth season at Turf Moor, the midfielder is approaching 200 appearances for the club – yet success stories like Arfield’s will soon be a thing of the past at Falkirk.
The decision by Falkirk comes at a time when things appeared to be looking up for the youth development within Scottish football. Project Brave, despite its critics, appears to be getting its wheels in motion for a progressive and positive shot at reimagining the development of young players across the country.
Whether it is the best way to do this or not is a matter for another day, but the fact that the Scottish FA and Malky Mackay have taken time to create a structured plan would suggest that they are serious about nurturing the talent present in the professional ranks of the game in a way which focuses on the benefit of each participant club and, in the longer term, the national team.
The SFA have branded Project Brave’s core aims as ‘optimising playing opportunities’ and bringing ‘greater focus to talent development’ across Scotland’s professional football clubs – but what kind of message does it send to those involved in the youth game in Falkirk if the biggest youth football academy in the area is being pulled in order to allow financial resources to be spent on the first team instead?
The day before the club announced its decision to withdraw funding from the Forth Valley FA, Falkirk confirmed the signing of 22-year-old full back Tommy Robson from English Championship strugglers Sunderland. Robson started in the youth ranks of Darlington before moving to Sunderland’s Academy of Light – arguably a similar story which the likes of Craig Sibbald, Darren Barr and Stephen Kingsley will have experienced at Falkirk.
Robson didn’t make the grade at Sunderland and his move to Falkirk could be a sign of things to come for Bairns fans. Rather than seeing products of the club’s own youth system on the Falkirk Stadium turf, fans will see the products of other club academies pulling on the shirt.
There is undoubtedly a special connection between fans and home-grown players who make the step up to the first team. “He’s one of our own” is a chant which can be heard at stadiums across the country, and it is a chant which has doubtless echoed around the Falkirk Stadium over the years. Once the remaining crop of academy graduates part ways with the club it will have been sung for the last time. For the time being at least.
Supporters of Falkirk’s decision will argue that the first team is the priority at the moment, and to invest funds in the development of young players is something which the club can worry about once its fortunes on the pitch align more clearly with its performance expectations.
Falkirk’s model, despite being in its early stages, appears to be similar to that of English clubs Brentford and Huddersfield Town. This model is to invest funds on first team and reserve team players in the hope that they produce quick results on the pitch and can be sold at profit as a consequence of those positive performances – a win-win situation both in sporting and financial terms it would seem.
At a time when fans are being urged to look forward with optimism on matters relating to Scottish football, should our clubs be aiming a little higher than following tentatively in the footsteps of one or two clubs in England?
The worry is where this model stops. If it is a success, and Falkirk gain promotion to the SPFL Premiership in the next year or two, could it be that other clubs of a size and league standing similar to that of Falkirk follow suit and scrap their youth development strategy in favour of quick-win investments in their first team squads?
A positive outcome at Falkirk not only makes Scottish professional football clubs reassess their beliefs and development plans, but also raises real questions for the SFA and those behind the initiatives to encourage clubs to fund youth systems for the betterment of the game in Scotland.
Success may also send a message to like-minded clubs which says “why waste your money on developing young players to little or no avail when you can do it our way and compete at a higher level in the SPFL?”
Will the SFA stump up the cash to ensure every professional club selected to be a part of Project Brave can afford a youth system? The funding of youth academies has been ‘streamlined’ as part of the project, with additional funding available to clubs when they achieve performance-based outcomes – but this funding needs to be of a sufficient level to encourage those clubs to maintain their enthusiasm for the concept.
Falkirk’s decision to scrap its backing of the Forth Valley Football Academy would suggest that – for some clubs at least – this SFA funding is not enough.
Scottish football could be faced with the very real possibility that only 10 or 12 clubs across the country will bother to invest in youth development. The likes of Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen could feasibly end up dictating the development of youth players throughout the country, with other clubs looking on in the faint hope that they may be drip-fed some of the scraps once the clubs begin to cull their squads at under-17 and under-20 levels.
Some may argue that the bigger clubs in Scotland already do this, that the facilities and finances available to them mean that they can pick and drop players at ease, and that eventually hoovering up the best talent across the country is an inevitability rather than a possibility.
What we are left with then is a select group of clubs teaching a select group of players how to play football – with an almighty scramble from those in the lower reaches of the professional game hoping to unearth a cast-off talent who has spent their football lives developing under someone else’s rules in someone else’s training environment.
On the other side of the coin, what if this new model doesn’t work? If the gamble to scrap decades of work in the form of an entire youth academy doesn’t pay off by means of promotion to the SPFL Premiership, then what? Scrap the reserve team? Fill the team with more and more loanees from the Scottish top flight and England in the hope that one of them will turn out to be a star?
It is hard to see a decision of this nature as anything but a short-term fix, a panic decision in a moment where the first team are falling below the standards expected by a club who are pining for a return to Scotland’s top flight.
In the seven seasons since Falkirk’s relegation to the second tier, the club have finished inside the top three every year apart from one: the anomaly of the 2014-15 season in which Hearts, Rangers and Hibernian all featured in the SPFL Championship.
The team’s league finishes do not suggest monumental wrongdoings at the club and therefore suggest that the existence of their widely successful youth system is not the reason they have failed to gain promotion to the Premiership.
What is certain is that the likes of Jay Fulton, Stephen Kingsley and Scott Arfield – three players developed by Falkirk from a young age who went on to play first team football before moves to the English Premier League – signifies that there is still a pool of hungry, talented footballers available to teams outside of the SPFL Premiership’s biggest clubs, and would therefore suggest that producing home grown talent is still an integral part of the game in this country.
For the sake of the Scottish game and our national teams it is imperative that youth development remains central in the sporting and financial decisions taken by clubs across the country.
It is pivotal to the SFA’s ongoing improvement strategy; from Performance Schools to Project Brave. The development of young Scottish players must continue if we are to see the national team regularly qualifying for major tournaments once again.