Aw naw… not another post Scotland fitba disaster bit of navel gazing

Date: 27th September 2019

After yet another chastening International break, an endless assortment of online bloggers, twitterati and pundits formed a long line to decry the state of Scottish football.  And, true to form, the phrase that is sure to bring a chill to the heart of any fan who has been around these last two or so decades – “root and branch” review of Scottish Football – was trotted out for the umpteenth time.  Oh great.  That’s it sorted then – we’re having a root and branch review – again.

So, no doubt we will be subjected to more of the same.  X-Box generation, genetics, too wee, Iceland, Uruguay, the lot.  What is lost in all of this is what is really different about Scotland?  Kids here have the same outside temptations as teenagers anywhere else in the world, so why is it these external factors seem to be so ruinous to Scottish kids football ability whilst having no impact elsewhere in the world?

More for my own amusement than anything else, I looked at the starting 11 in the Scotland v Brazil game in 1998 – our last tournament appearance and the opening game in the 1998 World Cup.  I can remember the excitement in Scotland around that game, can even remember the cheesy Dario G World Cup song (Carnival de Paris, pop pickers) and I remember that glorious moment when, briefly, we drew level with Brazil only to lose to the near inevitable comic cuts goal.

There was of course no Academy, pro-youth or performance school structure back then, but if you look at that starting 11, they all signed professional contracts at, or around 18 (Christian Dailly and a couple of others were slightly younger) and, Craig Burley apart, every one of the team started their career at what we might generously call less glamourous clubs.

So, what has changed in football?  Well, in 1998, a player like Gordon Durie was signed by East Fife in 1981 at 17, got 81 competitive games under his belt in three years, then moved on to Hibs (47 appearances) before going to Chelsea in 1986.  So, in under 5 years, and at 22 years of age, Durie had played more than 120 games (more than 20 per season) at different levels before moving on to the top flight in England.

Jim Leighton was signed by Aberdeen having had a youth career in Eastercraigs and Dalry Thistle at the age of 19.  I am pretty certain that, if I looked at Scotland teams over the subsequent 5 or so years, it would look very similar in terms of where players started out. So, were I looking at what has happened to Scottish football that has led to our tumbling down the rankings, the questions I might ask would include:-

  1. Do we really need big club academies?
  2. Shouldn’t we really be focusing all youth development and investment on lower league clubs – simply because, what is different is that these clubs offer a clear pathway from youth to first team? First team competitive football from a relatively young age seems to be the common characteristic in that 1998 team.  It is also the thing that big club academies has killed stone dead;
  3. Why are clubs focusing on signing boys at increasingly young ages, only to discard them at 15 and long before they reach their physical peak?  Looking at that Scotland team, they all played through their development years in boys clubs (Lambert at Linwood Rangers, Collins at Hutchie Vale for example). What was so wrong about the boys club set up given that it seemed to have produced so many top flight players?

Of course, it would be fair to say that the Academy set up now is far more professional and the selection process is rigorous but the question is does it actually work? Or is it a numbers game, designed to produce one talent every year? In what other business would you accept a failure rate of 99%? And what does failure look like?  Why do so many of the boys who are discarded give up football completely?  Is there not another pathway for them in football?

Seems to me that the whole process of selection, development and coaching is where the focus needs to be.  You need people who are good at identifying ability (not people who are good at seeing the bigger boy at the age group which, let’s face it, requires no more than functioning eyes) and a different coaching methodology.  I think what really frustrates me is that we seem to be on a downward spiral that will only really be stemmed if the development of the next generation is taken out of the hands of the elite clubs.

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