Lack of quality, not opportunity, stifling Scottish players

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Gordon Strachan
Gordon Strachan has been in charge of Scotland since early 2013

They're having great fun in Dublin right now, the Football Association of Ireland busy calculating the amount of cash they're going to make after qualifying for Euro 2016.

There's not a precise number on it, but safe to say when the final cheque drops it'll be enough to pay for two or three of those £4m facial recognition systems that are all the rage at the moment, in the land of the bewildered.

The FAI last week announced that they have received 275,000 applications for tickets for the Euro 2016 games against Sweden, Belgium and Italy. Their total allocation for all three games is 26,000, so amid all the feel-good they have a problem to fix. A nice problem, you have to say.

Oh to have that conundrum in Scotland. Here, the post-mortems carry on. The latest contribution is the SFA's refinement of their 2020 Vision, as outlined on Thursday by Gordon Strachan and the association's performance director, Brian McClair.

As you read through the suggested tweaks to the Club Academy Scotland system and the call for the introduction of a draft system in the domestic game there is a temptation to sit back in disbelief.

Strachan, and the SFA, want to talk about the future and fair enough. But what about the present? What about the national team manager doing the job he was employed to do, a job that was eminently do-able? Namely, getting Scotland into the expanded Euro 2016. Nobody wants to talk about that.

Disaster in Georgia

Stephen Fletcher
Scotland's 1-0 defeat by Georgia was detrimental to their Euro 2016 campaign

The reason Scotland did not make the play-offs for Euro 2016 had nothing to do with academies or facilities or opportunities for young players. It had everything to do with Strachan's team getting it horrendously wrong by losing in Georgia midway through the campaign.

Had they not done so, then Scotland would have finished third with a real shot at qualification through the play-offs.

"We need to be honest in assessing where we are, where we want to be and how we get there," said Strachan on Thursday.

Quite. 'Where we are?' On the outside looking in. 'Where we want to be?' On the inside looking out. 'How we get there?' By beating the likes of Georgia.

Ever since Scotland failed to make the play-offs there has been a strange moving of the goalposts at the SFA. Would qualification have been the panacea for all ills in the game here? Of course not, but it would have been feel-good for fans and brought cash to develop and grow the game.

In the analysis of what went wrong in the qualification campaign, there has been too much big picture stuff and not enough close focus. Strachan is brilliantly qualified to talk about what needs to happen in youth football in this country, but there was still an element of the surreal about his vision last week.

Daft draft

Kieran Tierney
Kieran Tierney has impressed for Celtic

Strachan has chipped in with a draft system idea that would see young fringe players in the Premiership being loaned out to clubs in the Championship to get more first-team football.

It's hardly Scottish football's Eureka! moment. More than 30 young home-grown players from Premiership clubs are already on loan in the lower leagues. Most of them are teenagers.

The Scotland coach wants each Premiership club to put five players into the draft. This would suggest that these clubs lose control - or total control - of where their young players end up. It's wholly wrong.

If, say, Aberdeen, want to loan a player to Falkirk because they like Peter Houston's coaching but are told no, they have to loan the player to another club, where is the fairness in that? It's illogical and unworkable. It's just noise.

Numbers don't add up

It also feeds into the narrative that young Scottish talent is being held back, that impressive youngsters in this country are not getting the game-time they need and, as a consequence, are wasting away.

This is questionable, to say the least. Contrary to being obstructed, it's arguable that this is the greatest time to be a young footballer in Scotland. There is no money, fewer imports and more opportunity. The game is full of young kids. Whether they're good enough is a different point, but in big numbers they're getting their chance to show what they've got.

In the last round of matches in the Premiership the number of Scottish teenagers who saw action was in double figures and the number of under-21s involved was close to 30. Kilmarnock had three home-grown teens in their starting line-up while Partick Thistle, Hearts, Motherwell, Dundee United, Ross County and Inverness also gave game-time to a teenager (or teenagers).

Celtic would have done the same on Thursday but Kieran Tierney was given a night off in their pummelling of Hamilton. Tierney is only 18 and is now considered Ronny Deila's first-choice left-back.

Changed landscape

Claudio Caniggia
Claudio Caniggia turned out for Dundee and Rangers

It's a snapshot, sure, and these numbers might vary - but not wildly - depending on what weekend you want to look at. A study of the corresponding round of games 15 years ago - January 2001 when Claudio Caniggia was in his expensive pomp at Dundee and Rangers had Tore-Andre Flo in their attack - shows that Scotland's top division fielded 16 Scottish players with an age of 21 or under.

That number compares poorly to the one from last week. The landscape has changed dramatically.

Dip into last week's Championship fixtures and this notion that young players don't get a fair shot is undermined even further. There were almost 40 under-21s playing in those games. And many of them have already played buckets of first-team matches.

Falkir's Craig Sibbald, 20, has played 176 senior games. His team-mate, Conor McGrandles, also 20, has played 83. Hibs' John McGinn, 21, has played 121 times, most of them at his previous club, St Mirren. Barrie McKay, of Rangers, is 21 and has played 114 games.

Liam Henderson (Hibs) and Mark Russell (Morton) are both 19 and have more than 50 senior appearances already. Many others of the same age have 30 and 40 matches under their belts already. These guys are young but they've already been around for several seasons.

Endless reviews

Brian McClair and Gordon Strachan
Brian McClair and Gordon Strachan have set out their vision for Scottish football's future

Strachan says that these Scottish boys lack the opportunity. Largely, they don't. If they don't make it at the big clubs they get loaned out to smaller clubs and they play and play and play.

What's lacking is not young players - the leagues are awash with them - but good young players with good skills and technique and mental strength. And the bigger problem is in coaching. Scottish football has all the young players it needs, but not all the progressive coaches.

These failings wouldn't have gone away had Scotland reached Euro 2016, but there would've been a break from the endless reviews and overviews and strategies and blueprints.

Because of a giant failure in qualification, there's more talk about plotting for some distant point in the future. The next World Cup campaign or the Euro qualifiers after that, or the following World Cup, or the new Euros. Always reaching and never achieving.

It's as the American singer-songwriter, John Legend, put it: "The future started yesterday, and we're already late."