From grassroots to glory: Getting to the top


As a nation, it gives us pride when a Scottish player achieves success for both club and country. Just think of the moment McFadden scored that 30-yard screamer against France in Paris, or the pride you feel when you watch Gemmill dancing through the Dutch defence in the footage of World Cup 78. Those goals were scored by Scots! Home-bred Scots!

There’s no doubt that youth development is, and always has been, important to Scottish football. Now, on an economic level the game in this country isn’t as healthy as it once was so Scottish football more than ever is dependant on developing young players, and there is arguably nothing more profitable for a club than a consistent youth academy, capable of bringing through quality youngsters year on year.

The hunt is always on for new blood but what does it take to be the next Darren Fletcher or James McFadden? What was it that made the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Jimmy Johnstone and Ally McCoist stand out? We all think we know a good player when we see one but there are some people who make a living out of talent spotting, and more importantly, talent development. What is it they look for in young players?

Head of the Inverness Caledonian Thistle Youth Academy is ex-player and manager Charlie Christie (pictured, above right) and he says: “First and foremost I look for good balance, coordination and ability. The aim is to develop players over a substantial length of time by focusing on technique at the younger age levels and then introducing a more tactical awareness to their game as they reach the early teenage years.”

Since Rangers built their Murray Park training complex, they have a proven track record of developing young talent. Charlie Adam, Alan Hutton, Allan McGregor, Danny Wilson and Chris Burke are a hand-full of examples of players who have come through the academy to have successful careers. Craig Mulholland is the Academy Operations Manager for Rangers Football Club and when I asked him what Rangers look for in a young player he said:

“The Academy assesses players using the 4 A’s method – Ability, Athleticism, Attitude and Awareness. Within each of these four categories are more detailed criteria, which our recruitment team and coaching staff use to evaluate prospective and current Academy players.”

So, each club is out looking for new players to develop but when in their youth is it most ideal to find a youngster? Is there a best age from which to develop a player? Charlie Christie says: “I don’t know if there is a ‘best age’ but would certainly argue that the earlier a youngster joins the club the easier it can be to develop them. Ideally we like to have kids in our system from perhaps age 8-9 years old.”.

Once a player joins an academy they can be sure of the best training available to them and access to a wealth of knowledge from coaches and ex-professionals to help them become the best they can possibly be. At Inverness Caledonian Thistle, the average week for a young player consists of 2 technical coaching sessions of 90minutes each, one sports science/fitness evening of around one hour and a competitive match on a Sunday.

According to Craig Mulholland, at Rangers a holistic approach is taken to developing players as the club seeks to develop not only the footballer, but the person too. Their coaching staff, who must all have an SFA Childrens Licence (10’s to 12’s) or a Youth Licence (13’s to 17’s), are regularly in-serviced and meet frequently to ensure the professional delivery of their progressive age specific curriculum. Mulholland says:

“Our long term player development plan takes cognisance of the various ages and stages in a young person’s development and where they will benefit most from certain activities. By having a long term plan and an age specific programme for both football and non-football education we are hopefully maximising the gains that can be made at each stage of a players development. Our coaches are also strategically placed to ensure their experience, knowledge and skills set is best suited to enhancing the learning experience of that specific age group.”

There is no doubt that there is a lot more to being a top player than just ability with things like mentality and attitude ranked as just as important at Rangers. Their academy is intensive and designed so that dedication and attitude is as important a factor in their players as their god-given talent.

“Our youngest players of 9’s and 10’s can train from 1 to 3 sessions per week, while our players from 11’s to 16’s are doing four sessions or more in a normal week, in addition to their match. Over and above the standard programme, our most talented players at 14’s, 15’s and 16’s level participate in a school day release programme which adds a further 7 hours of training per week. Our full-time professionals from 17’s onwards participate in a minimum of 7 sessions per week, in addition to a match, encompassing technical, tactical, game awareness, physical and mental development.” said Mulholland.

Youngsters playing at youth level across the country probably wonder how it is players are ‘discovered’ by the top clubs. Each club has their own preference for finding players, for example Inverness Caledonian Thistle like to look locally when searching for new talent:

“We tend to recruit players by attending school, boys club and street league matches in our area, plus through word of mouth from several adults who are involved in football in our area. Due to our geography, it is difficult at the younger age levels to spread our catchments too far but we certainly look for players within a 2 hour drive from Inverness from ages 15 upwards, although we do have some at the younger age levels.” said Christie.

He continued: “Rather than watching a player for a number of games we like to invite them in to train with the appropriate age squad over a 4-6 week period. This gives a far better indication of how they fare against the better players in this area.”.

Inverness Caledonian Thistle currently have around 120 players in their elite youth set-up and most of these players have continued on from previous seasons. The club tends to introduce around 15 – 20 new players each season.

Rangers are one of the ‘big two’ in Scotland and obviously have greater resources at their disposal than most other clubs, so they are able to look far and wide for potential players for their youth academy. Below the age of U15’s they have an extensive network of scouts who cover Scotland ensuring that the club is well aware of the best young talent in the country. After the age of 15 they extend this coverage wider and have staff and contacts in a variety of countries out with Scotland. The amount of players Rangers recruit each year varies from season to season, however the academy prefers to keep all of their squads as small as possible to ensure maximum playing time for each player.

Ambitious young players who would like to make a career in the game should simply enjoy playing the game they love, and work hard at developing their strengths and weaknesses. Undoubtedly sacrifices must be made to make it to the top, where the rewards are fantastic, and only the most dedicated players will succeed. says: “It is not an easy path to become a professional footballer and in addition to requiring exceptional talent, which can only be developed through discipline and dedication, a youngster desperate to succeed must also ensure that they live correctly off the pitch to ensure they have the best possible chance.”

As and ex-player and manager at the top level in Scottish football, Charlie Christie has some advice for aspiring footballers: “My advice would be to maximise the amount of time they practice from a very early age. Three coaching sessions alone is not enough and young players must spend time on their own or with friends perfecting their skill set and abilities. I stress this to all our young players and their parents every season.”

Written by Youth Football Scotland


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