State of the Game: Scottish game suffers as young talent goes early
Last updated on .From the section Football
The issue in Scotland is not developing talented players but holding on to them.
The best individuals will ultimately be encouraged to leave for better leagues and better teams, because they will improve as a result. It is timing that is the problem, though.
Examples abound. David Goodwillie was a vibrant figure for Dundee United, hustling and bustling his way to prominence. He moved to Blackburn Rovers, failed to make an impact, spent loan periods at three different clubs and has now returned north to Aberdeen - where his talent has been reignited.
When Hibernian came within a stunningly unexpected Alim Ozturk strike of defeating Hearts at Easter Road last month, the two outstanding midfield players on display were Dylan McGeouch and Scott Allan.
The latter had also been a starlet at Tannadice, where his virtuosity on the ball and driving runs marked him out as an exciting prospect. He moved to West Bromwich Albion just after he turned 20 and four loan spells followed before he returned to Scotland as a free agent in the summer, eventually signing for Hibs.
Both Goodwillie and Allan moved after breaking into the first team, in the same way that Danny Wilson did at Rangers. A series of impressive displays alongside David Weir led to Wilson moving to Liverpool at 18, where he too failed to establish himself.
Again, a run of loan spells ended with Wilson joining Hearts, where he is now club captain.
Others leave even before the Scottish game is fully aware of the extent of their potential.
Fraser Fyvie had graduated to the Aberdeen first team at 16, suffered a serious injury but then become a regular in the side when he opted to leave for England. He joined Wigan Athletic when he was 19 and has had loan spells at Yeovil Town and Shrewsbury Town.
When Jack Grimmer left Aberdeen at 17 to join Fulham's development squad, Duncan Fraser, the Pittodrie chief executive, was moved to remark that the loss of the talented midfielder was symptomatic of a significant wider problem.
"There is a bigger issue here for Scottish football in that we are beginning to see young Scottish talent moving south before they have fully developed with the teams they signed for as youngsters," he said.
The very best talents will always be spirited away and, in a sense, that is reflective of their ability and, by extension, of the youth development work that shaped them.
But their best chance of establishing themselves at bigger clubs in more accomplished leagues will depend on many attributes, not least their physical development and maturity.
|Richard Wilson on Scotland's talent drain|
|"The money on offer in England will always be greater and compensation fees for the development hours a club has put in are comparatively low, but there might be ways to encourage or reward Scottish clubs for buying home-grown talent."|
Several players have shown the worth, after all, of learning the game in Scotland before moving south. The number of Scots playing in the Championship in England has remained stable in the past 12 months, but many of them are thriving.
Craig Bryson left Kilmarnock when he was 25 and has become an integral figure in the Derby County side challenging for promotion. Others have followed a more established path, with Steven Naismith moving from Kilmarnock to Rangers before joining Everton when he was 26.
In both cases, Scottish football benefited as much as the players from their prolonged stay.
The number of Scots in the Premier League in England, as a proportion of the total, is growing, which is a further indication that clubs are making progress in identifying and shaping young talent.
Even so, there are problems to solve.
Ryan Gauld felt the need to move abroad to develop his game, even if there was also a reasonable argument to be made that he could not turn down the opportunity to move to Sporting Lisbon in the summer.
But at Dundee United he had been holding down his place in the first team, and in decades gone by, a player like Gauld may well have stayed in Scotland for a spell.
It used to be traditional that players who performed well at some of the smaller clubs in Scotland would be signed by the likes of Rangers, Celtic, Aberdeen, Dundee, Hearts or Hibs. Fans of other clubs would often bridle at their best players being tempted away to richer rivals, but the talent and the money was at least kept within the Scottish game.
Some Celtic fans still gripe that Steven Fletcher (Hibs to Burnley), James McCarthy (Hamilton to Wigan) and Johnny Russell (Dundee United to Derby) - all of whom were targets or were being closely monitored by the club - moved to England. Yet Scott Brown, Gary Caldwell and Charlie Mulgrew all succeeded at Celtic Park after joining from other Scottish teams.
In an ideal world, the Scottish top flight could hold on to all the best talents, but the nature of the game has changed too drastically for that.
So how can enough talent be retained?
There are options. More clubs could make youth development their central, over-riding policy, so that players are convinced their games will improve by staying into their early 20s instead of fleeing in their late teens.
The money on offer in England will always be greater and compensation fees for the development hours a club has put in are comparatively low, but there might be ways to encourage or reward Scottish clubs for buying home-grown talent. Scottish football needs to be creative to take advantage of the opportunities that circumstances have brought.
Where once clubs hankered to be bold and brash in the transfer market, they have now realised the economic benefits - and the way it re-energises the bond between fans and their teams - of developing young players.
But more thought has to be given to keeping that talent in Scotland for a few extra years before they head south or abroad to develop their games further.