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Late doesn't always mean last

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Jack Ross | 12:06 UK time, Monday, 18 January 2010

Steady progression or instant impression?

What do we expect from our young players?

I began to debate this in the aftermath of the transfer on Friday of my former team-mate, Stephen McGinn, to Watford and question at what age players, managers and supporters expect young professionals to be starring in first-team football.

In Stephen's case, he is probably the perfect example of an apprentice who has made gradual inroads into top-team football, steadily increasing his number of first-team appearances since he made his debut at the age of 18 until he became a permanent fixture in our team this season.

This successful transition is, of course, a consequence of his undoubted ability but also down to a fantastic desire to listen to advice, learn from it and do as much as possible to improve his game, from the technical aspect to his physical condition.

It is therefore clear that Stephen has made the most of the platform given to him by St Mirren and yet, as a teenager, there was no clear guarantee that he would go on to progress as he has.

I was released at 18 from Dundee, with the reason given that I was not ready for first-team football. I could not argue with that assessment as I wasn't, but should I have been, or is it correct to use such an age as a cut-off point for further development?

Despite my experience, I do agree that managers and coaches have to make judgements on players at certain stages of their careers and, as the latter teenage years coincide with the possible jump from apprenticeship to professional contracts, then it is inevitable that it is at this time that dreams can be shattered.

Furthermore, there are many people within football who would argue that these judgements are usually correct and that those players who are released do not have the necessary attributes to be successful professionals.

However, as always, there are exceptions to the rule and the game is littered with those who have had fantastic careers despite not following the conventional route to success and who only began to impress in the senior game as they reached their twenties.

Probably the most striking example of this is the Rangers captain, David Weir, a player who, having spent time studying and playing in the USA, returned to Scotland to begin a wonderful professional career at the age of 22.

This example, and others such as the former Arsenal striker, Ian Wright, can only serve as encouragement to those young players unfortunate enough to be on the wrong side of which at times is only one opinion and perhaps inspire some to play their way back to a high level.

I acknowledge that there will always be those who are earmarked for the very top from a very early age and who progress as expected.

Aiden McGeady is one who has carried such expectation for several years and, indeed, is probably a player who satisfies both questions posed in my opening line in that he has continued to improve each season after initially grabbing headlines with a debut goal for Celtic while still a teenager.

However, surely the superstars are the easy ones to spot, the easy ones to tip for the top. It is those who may just be late developers, who may just be good enough and hungry enough to keep developing, that are the more difficult to foster.

In the short-term demands of the modern game, it takes a brave manager to develop these players, but sometimes fortune favours the brave.


  • Comment number 1.

    Thanks, this is a really intriguing piece - thanks for posting it.

    I think there are a lot of things clubs could be doing. For instance, clubs in Holland are made to make sure that any player released has to linked up with an amateur club. This means they stay within the game, and furthermore, are more likely to become coaches at a lower level or even refereeing.

    Add to that, I think that football scholarships in the US for players released at 17/18 would add so much to their lives.


    And some thoughts on youth development:

  • Comment number 2.

    I wouldn't get a rid of a player because he wasn't ready for first team football (unless you really could not afford it). If the player had the attributes to make it I'd give them time and be patient for a few years anyway and hope I got something out of it.

    Sometimes throwing a player into the game when he's 18 does stand him in a good position though because they learn to cope with professionals.

    My one problem with Stephen is that he was a bit lightweight and could go missing against physical teams, maybe exposure to the first team might have made him improve his strength even more.

  • Comment number 3.

    While not comparing to your experience or David Weir's, but similar to Stephens, I would also like to mention Darren Fletcher as a late bloomer. Tell the truth, I used to criticise him in the United team, but he has worked hard, improved every aspect of his game and is becoming the complete midfield player. The road has not been easy for Darren, living up to the expectations that United fans expect from their players but he has proved a lot of people wrong, myself included and become one of our most influential players.

    I think because of stars like Rooney, Messi, Fabregas etc, people expect players to be world class at 18. This is obviously a false impression because most players in my opinion reach their peak years in their mid twenties. Impatient fans should take note of stories like this when judging a players potential.

  • Comment number 4.

    Great article very impressed. Not often i manage to read through a full article on the bbc without falling asleep.

    Sometimes for one reason or another it doesnt happen for certain players at certain clubs under certain managers regardless of age. As you say in your article, one mans opinion of you is not the be all and end all, and the players you have mentioned above are examples of this.
    These individuals should be an inspiration to some of the youngsters who have been told they are surplus to requirements at their club.
    Never give up there is always hope!
    Better to be a late developer in football terms than a young 18 year old guy who seems to have the world at his feet for a season, then the following seasons vanish and we never hear of them again.
    Im sure there will be a good few examples of this in the football world.

  • Comment number 5.

    Jack, do you have any interest in going into coaching once you've finished taking Saints into Europe? You couldn't do any worse than the negative man we have right now!!

    Seriously tho, is coaching in your thoughts? I've started coaching at kids level but would love to get involved in the highest level possible in the future.

  • Comment number 6.

    Again an interesting blog but the question of managers ability continues to trouble me especially in the light of this years spl results even last nights cup tie. Walter Smith and his sidekick
    are rated as top scottish management material. Mowbrey is certainly rated also but their teams of players earning probably ten times as much as Falkirk and Hamilton struggle to beat them. Who is resposible players or their bosses?.
    how can an objective conclusion be drawn. how does a potential manager learn to judge players? I hope you can explore these topics in your future blogs

  • Comment number 7.


    That's a fascinating question. In a one-off game, any decent team (like Falkirk) can beat a very strong team (Rangers). Over the season, we'll see that the cream rises. That's why two-legged cup ties always favour the big teams.

    The fascinating question is: How does a (potential) manager learn to judge players. I really don't know but then you might ask the same question of any organisation - how does the HR manager learn how to judge staff? By observation, by recommendation, by closely working with them. Unlike most jobs, there is a huge amount of published and ''gettable'' information for any player really and managers (with advisors)will sift through that to see if a player will fit into their system.

    Sometimes this is easy (buying a world-class player). Sometimes it takes nous... sometimes great managers pick obscure players and they turn into great finds.

    Jack, however, would know much more than I - that's me joining dots!


  • Comment number 8.

    There have been massive improvements made in the level of advice and assistance given to young players released by clubs. A large part of this is as a result of the work carried out by PFA Scotland, which aims to help these players find other clubs and/or offer them career or educational alternatives.

    It is the psychological effect of rejection which is still most difficult for younger players to deal with, but with encouragement hopefully players can recover and sometimes prosper.

    With regards to coaching, I am aiming to complete my 'A' licence this summer, and if an opportunity arose in the future in management/coaching then I would be delighted. Whether I would be successful or not remains to be seen, because as the comment about potential managers alluded to, how can potential managers prepare for certain situations?

    Players undoubtedly have the ability to coach and pass on their knowledge, successful man management is another skill and not easy to master and therefore a possible reason why top players don't always make top managers!

  • Comment number 9.

    Thanks, Jack.

    Interesting that Arsenal are being heavily linked with the excellent Chris Smaling. He couldn't settle at any youth academies and played at a much lower level... and has found a way to the Premiership. It still is possible.

    I know that the SFA is doing more. Is it doing enough? Could it be doing more? Very possibly and, when we look around Europe, we are probably lagging behind. Too many players (in England and Scotland) just drift away from the game.

    In terms of technical development, we are miles behind. Croatia is smaller, poorer, further away from the knowledge networks of international coaching in central Europe, has fewer world class coaches and less exposure to the Champions League... yet has produced players like Boban, Prosinecki, Suker, Srna, Eduardo, Modric, Kranjcar etc. Has Scotland produced one player of that quality since 1990? Not many, sadly.

    Why? That's a huge question. Keep up the good work, Jack. Love the blog.


  • Comment number 10.

    A very interesting blog.

    I suppose managers and coaches get to look at players every day and they will have a lot of information on how they are developing and getting on. I suppose working with them every day it would be relatively easy to see which players are showing (enough) potential to break in to the first team or go further and if not then I get the impression it seems fairly easy for clubs to just toss them out.

    It must be hard for anyone to judge who will be a late developer but i suppose while playing they will always be improving while showing more signs of further improvement. I mean look at Arshavin, hardly the teenage superstar but look at him now. And in relation to Scottish players 2 that stick out for me are Barry Robson and Paul Hartley, continuously getting better with age.

    In relation the previous comment about Croatia. Because they are so poor it means children go out and play football as they don't have much else to do. Over here kids are spoilt rotten with playstations and xboxes and lots of things that aren't even encouraging kids to do excercise let alone play football. The Croatian kids don't have these luxuries and have a lot less to do so play more and get better. Like how most Brazilian kids are amazing because all they can do in the slums they live in is play football. Ronaldinho once said there are kids there all the time that would of been better than him but at a young age had to decide either to work or play football and most would start to work.

    More has to be done by the SFA at grass roots level to give more kids a chance of progressing at a young age. We are lightyears behind the major nations like France, Germany and Holland.

    Great blog Jack, keep them coming

  • Comment number 11.

    A lot of our training methods in this country aim to make players athletes first and footballers second.

    Something that HAS to change, I think.

    Jacko if you need an assistant manager, give me a shout ;)!


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