Ross County youth coach Stuart Kettlewell targets first team spots for his stars

Stuart Kettlewell
Stuart Kettlewell was delighted with his side's title win but says that is just the start for his young stars

The man who masterminded Ross County's Development League title win admits he will ultimately be judged on how many of his players make the first team.

Stuart Kettlewell guided the under-20 side to the championship ahead of Hamilton Accies and Celtic, who had won six of the previous seven titles.

The 32-year-old former County player described the achievement as "special".

But he added: "At the start of the season I'm tasked with improving the players first and foremost."

Kettlewell continued: "The challenge for us now is 'can these guys go and play 10-15 first-team games a season, can we then get them up to being regulars and key players?'"

In recent weeks Reghan Tumilty and Dylan Dykes have made the transition to Jim McIntyre's first team and Kettlewell is sure others will follow.

"I can genuinely say every player in that 15-man squad has improved," he said.

"You're judged on how many players you can progress into your first team. We would obviously like that to be more but what we've achieved this year gives them as good a grounding as possible to try to achieve that."

Dejected Hamilton Accies players
Hamilton players were left gutted when a 0-0 draw against Celtic ended their Development League title hopes

County have been criticised for not bringing through more talent from their youth academy.

But chairman Roy MacGregor says while the club's focus on attaining and retaining Premiership status may have detracted from their development plans, they are back on track under Kettlewell and head of youth Stevie Ferguson.

"I had a vision for developing youngsters and an academy and we've had a few through (most notably Gary Mackay-Steven and Don Cowie) but I think after eight or 10 years of running the academy system, we seem to now have a formula," MacGregor said.

"It's a culmination of a lot of hard graft and belief that even from a centre of small population, if you go about it the right way and you've got good standards and good people, you can develop football players.

"It's very much the model that was in Iceland and has developed that into a successful football nation."

MacGregor is encouraged by the proposals made by the SFA's performance director Malky Mackay for improvements to the elite development programme.

Regardless of future changes, one of Mackay's predecessors, Mark Wotte, stresses the primary aim of the Development League is not "winning it but to prepare 16-21-year-old players for their first team debut".

Former SFA Performance Director Mark Wotte
Former performance director Wotte insists the Development League is all about preparing players to step up

"It's great for Ross County but all that matters is how many of their players will progress to the first team and maybe further up the ladder," Wotte told BBC Scotland.

"Winning the league is a 'nice to have' not a 'must have'. Academy graduates playing first team is a 'must have' like (Kieran) Tierney, (Liam) Henderson, (Callum) McGregor and (James) Forrest at Celtic.

"Also it is easier to produce players for the level of Ross County than for Celtic without disrespecting the level of Ross County.

"In fairness, Celtic have much more money for recruitment and their academy than Ross County so it is still an amazing achievement, but you have to put it in perspective with what kind of age-group players they participated throughout the season."

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