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Why the SFA’s latest idea may become a short term solution to a long term problem

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The SFA on Saturday announced a scheme that is designed to pay out up to £500,000 in total to its league clubs who try to develop young players.

The plans are part of the SFA’s new performance strategy, entitled Scotland United. SPL clubs who select two Scottish under-21 players in their starting line-up in any competitive match will receive £750 from the SFA, and £1,000 for selecting three or more Scottish under-21 players per match.

SFL clubs will also benefit from the performance-driven scheme, with £75 and £100 rewards payable under the same terms. Whilst it’s positive to see the SFA investing in youth development, the question must be raised whether it is being focused in the right area.

Clubs in Scotland in the last 5 years have suffered their own mini economic recession, and have been forced to re-evaluate their own fiscal blueprints as they faced the demons of dwindling crowds, lesser T.V money and lower league clubs in England looking far more attractive to prospective players. Gone are the days of fans drooling over Latapy, Sauzee, Fuller and Ravanelli at non Old Firm clubs as the rest of the sides in the SPL found their growing debt had finally caught up to them. A financial reward for playing young players may now suit these hard up teams you might think.

Take Hibs for example – whilst recent examples of quality youngsters are hard to come by (Calum Booth aside), as the sale of talents such as Kevin Thomson, Steven Fletcher, Gary O’Connor, Scott Brown and Steven Whittaker have raked in a massive amount for the Leith club. Hearts are another who have reaped this benefit, having sold Craig Gordon, Christophe Berra, Lee Wallace for over £12million whilst Motherwell have survived the last few years based on the sales of
Stephen Pearson, James McFadden, David Clarkson and Mark Reynolds. Every player in that list has represented Scotland at the highest level, bar Mark Reynolds and Calum Booth.

So why have the SFA felt the need to suddenly invest in youth football in the Scottish game when there is evidence that it’s barely needed? Of course, there’s nothing worse than standing still and the organisation should be applauded for trying something new. However it strikes to most as damage control. After the 2008/09 season the SFA decided to scrap the reserve league for teams due mainly to the cost of implementing it.

This has caused huge problems for some clubs in the SPL, who have a vast amount of fringe and youth talent in their squad which are struggling to get any game time with their own team. Hearts and the Old Firm are immediate examples of over-sized squads with youth players sitting on the bench or in the stand, twiddling their thumbs without any chance of a sustained run in their team.

The loss of the reserve league has led to players being exiled from these clubs and massive culls being enforced after each campaign. Perhaps the SPL should be concentrating on investing the £500,000 on a reserve league to plug the exodus of young talent to the lower leagues or out of football altogether.

Of course on the other side of it, some youth team players are finding themselves farmed out to the lower league clubs, such as John Robertson’s East Fife becoming almost a feeder team for Hearts since the Jambo legend took the reins in October of last year. Other players have found success at lower league level that they were never able to attain in the reserve league, such as the highly rated Rory McAllister or former Inverness Caley Thistle hero Dennis Wyness. These players owe their livelihoods to crucially timed loan deals which were able to save stagnating young careers and give
them a competitive platform to achieve their footballing potential.

Should a balance be achieved therefore between the investment in youth and giving youngsters an effective platform to develop? Without excluding the vast majority of young players a re-structuring of the youth league in the top-tier could be viable. One option is switching from the current u19 setup to an u21/23 league like they have with various countries on the continent, whilst keeping the younger leagues to an u17 level before progression.

This style would enable players who perhaps have not reached their physical peak yet to be blooded into an age group of 18-23 where they could develop at a more comfortable level without being thrown into the lion’s den of hard lower league football; where battle weary senior pro’s are more interested in giving a young talent a sharp scythe rather than a fair tackle. Keeping the age bracket up to 23 would also give clubs a better indicator of a player’s ability to break into the top team – usually if a player has not played regularly for his SPL side by then surely the club should just cut
their losses.

Of course the clubs could still utilise the lower leagues with a loan system for some of its talented youth prodigies – but the important aspect is that the lower divisions will no longer be overcrowded with SPL second string players, allowing league sides to develop their own talent (which they have a good record with – e.g Dorrans, Snodgrass, Bryson, Swankie).

So perhaps the £500,000 could be better invested on a restructuring at reserve level for SPL clubs; although, despite my criticisms it is positive to see such a high figure being invested on any kind of youth development in Scotland. Whatever path they do choose, all avenues should be explored for increasing the level of top quality youngsters coming from every level of the Scottish game.

Written by Ruaraidh Mackay

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