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The kids are alright for SPL clubs

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Jim Spence | 15:33 UK time, Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Aberdeen's gazumping by Plymouth over the attempted signing of Reda Johnson is a tough lesson in the economics of the game for Scottish fans.

In the current climate with vastly reduced TV income, the Dons and every other Scottish club will struggle to match the paying power of Championship sides.

With wages of between £3500 and £5000 a week on offer against perhaps a third of that at top SPL clubs, players will vote, as Johnson did, with their wallets.

So how can the Scottish game attract and keep the brightest and best?

It'll have to be done through the clubs' own youth systems, but can the clubs rise to the challenge? Some already are and with flying colours. Hibs need few lessons on how to produce good quality, although retaining it might be a different matter.

under17s595.jpgMeantime, Dundee United boss Craig Levein has looked at the Tannadice youth set-up, concluded bravely that it is not fit for purpose and embarked on a radical overhaul to concentrate on technique, technique, and more technique.

He arrived at the decision having realised that some players coming through the system had not mastered the basic elements of the game.

It may take seven or eight years to bear fruit, but there is no reason to suspect that well coached Scots kids are less capable of controlling, taming and moving a ball accurately and at speed as well as their European counterparts.

Attention to detail is key. With a family interest in football and track cycling, there is no doubt in my mind which sport is the more advanced in terms of applied technique and training programmes.

Clearly, it's track cycling. Not convinced? Here are a few names to help prove my point: Sir Chris Hoy, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins. All three have proven themselves on the world stage.

At the velodrome, days will be spent sharpening a single skill such as a standing start or mastering the madison technique. In football a good number of senior players cannot control the ball adequately with their weaker foot, despite having played the game since their formative years.

Yet there was a time not that long ago when we produced players whose ability stood comparison with the best in the world.

We won't recreate the street environment which honed and refined those skills, but we may recreate it on the training ground with the kind of approach that Dundee United are about to engage in and, promisingly, the Scottish Football Association are fully behind the new Tannadice approach.

Good youth coaches should be allowed the time and the space to develop kids, with their budgets ring-fenced from competing demands at hard-pressed clubs, where survival is uppermost in the mind of chairmen.

The raw talent is there, and time, patience, and thoughtful modern coaching can ensure that Scotland can again produce great footballers.

And it's the only way forward, because the game's pockets are no longer deep enough to buy in from outside.


  • Comment number 1.

    Our youth system requires a complete overhaul. most of the SPL and SFL clubs concentrate first on athleticism and secondly on technique. There is also far too much focus on winning games and trophies. Scottish youth teams do pretty well in international tournaments up to and including under 16 level. The regularly beat their Dutch and German counterparts who have played far less competitive 11 a side games. However when the same teams play at U18 level the gap is enormous because the continental teams have the base technique and the Scottish teams don't.

    The other factor is the preoccupation with height and strength. I have been at a number of youth games where SPL scouts have asked about a certain player and then asked if the players father was at the game and then has a look to check the fathers height. Billy Stark made the point that if Xavi and Iniesta had gone through the Scottish Youth System they would have been unlikely to make it. We are in for a long barren spell at an International level because there are so few quality player coming through our youth system

  • Comment number 2.

    "Our youth system requires a complete overhaul. most of the SPL and SFL clubs concentrate first on athleticism and secondly on technique."

    I agree with most of what you say, but this is a problem that starts in primary school and is reinforced in secondary school. First at primary, where puce-faced parents urge their kids to vicarious glory for the family name, then in secondary, where a young kid of 14 can be playing for 2-3 different representative sides in competitive tournaments.

    At all levels, pace and power are emphasised, to the expense of technique, for the sake of results.

    However, attempts made in the past by both the SFA and SPL clubs to change the system in favour of smaller sided games, less competitive matches and more focus on skill, have led to howls of protest by the touchline tyrants.

    The other issue I see is that football as a whole has lost its way. I can totally understand a young kid taking up rugby or cycling instead of a sport that's rapidly turning into a money-grubbing reality TV entertainment divorced from reality, but that's another discussion for another day...

  • Comment number 3.

    Re 1

    I agree that the focus on physical attributes is not good. Skill will always beat physical strength. We have grown accustomed to Scots teams being gallant losers but battling bravely after being to easily outclassed.

    Youth football suffers in Scotland form poor organisation. There are too many governing bodies involved, to little resources put into facilities and precious little in the way of support for coaches. Our club went through the SFA quality Mark system a year ago and it seemed to do more for the SFA than it did for us. there was no financial benefit from the SFA.

    Far too much emphasis is put on winning at an early age, This stops kids trying the skills they learn in training in games, doesn't give them confidence. It also puts players off if they are physically small, they go and play golf or something else and are lost to football for ever, although in later years they may grow and become excellent footballers.

    Iniesta wouldn't have been allowed to shine in any u7 or U9 games he would have been stopped, probably wouldn't have been encouraged and gone and been an average golfer.

  • Comment number 4.

    The biggest problem regarding the lack of good quality youngsters coming through has been a cultural one. Gone are the days of street football where the ball was teid to the feet of the kids. Instead we have a large void where the basics of the game are being taught but in a way that dates back to methods of the last century.

    We should be allowing the kids to express themselves, play the ball from the back and midfield instead of coaching cries of 'boot the ball away' when a defender is presurised.

    Ball at feet always at a young age, the trapping, control and technique and even balance comes from always having a ball. But expression is a key element, we don't seem to be allowed to do that in our culture when it comes to football and outside Mcfadden and McGeady (Irish I know but came through the Scottish system) we haven't the players with enough personalitly and character to transcend to a more intelligent level of football.

    Perhaps we need a fresh approach to coaching kids in this country with the emphasis not on hard basic (outdated)discipline but instead expression and the beautiful game. The rest of course will follow.

    Oh, and while we are at it we need to rid ourselves of the touchline coaches barking out orders at every touch....let the footballer play football and if you have advice give it after the game.

  • Comment number 5.

    So Well are well done and Aberdeen are looking unlikely to have a lead to take away, with Celtic having it all to do I am reminded of the old pop song 'Embarassment' by Madness -Scottish Football-you're an Embarassment! We might as well shut up shop, as the usual 2 horse race for League, Cup and League Cup will see the usual average Old Firm teams who will not be anywhere near European qualification followed by the absolutely dire teams who won't qualify for the so-called Super league. Why bother, get back to supporting the Juniors and Juvenile leagues where at least you get 90 mins of honest endeavour from guys who love the game. And maybe we would stop getting taken for mugs by guys like Romanov. I wouldn't go to watch an SPL game if you let me pick the teams!
    As for the English leagues, they're not much better, just big boys fantasy football leagues run for the benefit and pleasure of more mad billionaires, with the likelihood of England getting past the 1/4 finals of the World Cup next year as likely as Hibs winning the Scottish Cup. Ah well, there's always the Tattoo and highland dancing to look forward to during the remainder of this Scottish Year of Homecoming - Scots Wha Hae!

  • Comment number 6.

    A decent youth set up is required across scotland, not only for a football point of view but also a money one. Fed up watch journeyman players playing with out any passion except for when they are looking for a move to the lower tier in england for stupid wages.

    At least the kids would be driven to play to earn there big move.

  • Comment number 7.

    Jim, after listening to your interview with Iain Cathro I can only see good things coming the way of Dundee United. Hopefully they can keep Craig Levein at the helm too because I believe he is the best manager in Scotland.

    From a Scotland fan first - and a Celtic fan second - I wish them every success with their new (and what looks like a very impressive) youth development scheme.

  • Comment number 8.

    Leo oh oh: "From a Scotland fan first - and a Celtic fan second - I wish them every success with their new (and what looks like a very impressive) youth development scheme."

    Is this so Celtic can buy all the good ones? :P

  • Comment number 9.

    I believe Craig Leveins youth development plans will reap great benefits for United in the future but I also feel he has built a team that will will take the SPL by storm this season. The SPL will again be a 2 horse race Celtic and Dundee United.

  • Comment number 10.

    Jim, sorry if this sounds like I'm 'having a go' at you, but your blog seems far more optimistic than the stark reality that has affected our game for such a long time. You make it sound like it'll be ok soon and the white knight that is Craig Levein, will be scottish football's saviour.
    "a time not that long ago when we produced players whose ability stood comparison with the best in the world."
    30 years isn't long ago?

    Our game has been laid to waste in that time and what have the SFA done? Nothing
    I'd like to see that association dissolved, get rid of the hangers on and the blazers and bring in younger people with new ideas.
    The SFA is just a stepping stone for aspiring chairmen of small time clubs who want to dine at the higher echelons of UEFA.
    If these people were any good, why is our football so obviously poor?

    And with respect to our coaching, are you saying that everyone else is wrong and only Levein is able to understand that what we need is to actually train players to play football??
    I'm far more pessimistic about where we are now because when it comes down to it, our countries football authorities aren't capable of making the right decisions, never mind though, Craig Levein is here

  • Comment number 11.

    The only way that we can ever return to competing in Europe is by moving our league to play in the summer. I would guess that all our teams were playing against sides whose leagues are already well under way. You can play as many friendlies as you like, there is no comparison to competative football. There are only 3 cash streams open to a football club. Money through the turnstiles and season tickets, TV revenue and Europe. If we are determined to close the European option we are heading toward league of Ireland/ Wales status.
    Please don't say you haven't been warned. I've been going on about this since the collapse of the Soviet Union created another dozen snouts in the trough. I would dare to suggest that no-one has suffered like we have. We now have no chance of qualifying for any international finals or anything other than sporadic success in Europe.
    Time to wake up and smell the coffee.........

  • Comment number 12.

    Its not just the poor coaching and development at youth level that is the problem. We must overhaul the whole structure of our game, in order to create more interest in the sport. I am one of the many tens of thousands who have abandoned going to watch live football in Scotland. Why?
    Because of many things:
    1. I dont want to pay £20+ to see a poor product
    2. I dont want to watch football where one side, and possibly both,are playing a defensive 5-4-1 or 4-5-1
    3. I want to watch the game in decent weather, not in a force 8 gale on wet Saturday in January.
    4. I dont want to watch games where there is a huge mismatch in abilities between teams
    5. I dont want to watch games where sectarianism is present

  • Comment number 13.

    coherentmonkey wrote

    3. I want to watch the game in decent weather, not in a force 8 gale on wet Saturday in January.
    4. I dont want to watch games where there is a huge mismatch in abilities between teams
    5. I dont want to watch games where sectarianism is present

    Guess you won't be waching the SPL, La Liga or Serie A ever again then

  • Comment number 14.

    Same old, same old.
    13 years ago, when i was playing U-14's football (11 a side on full size pitches) i remember a lot of talk about a revolution in youth development. Ajax had just won the European Cup with a largely home-grown team and Scottish journalists and coaches alike were raving about their youth system and talking about a new focus on technique.

    13 years on and Kirk Broadfoot is playing for Scotland, our domestic game is less technical than ever before, and Aberdeen are still getting humped in European preliminary rounds.

    I hope Jim's right and we do get our act together on youth development. But i won't hold my breath.

  • Comment number 15.

    #5 King Harry: "Why bother, get back to supporting the Juniors and Juvenile leagues where at least you get 90 mins of honest endeavour from guys who love the game."

    Is that not the problem? Promoting a style of play that consists of 'get it forward', 'get it in the box' etc etc

    Where a strong tackle is applauded wildly but a passage of passing in midfield to draw the opposition out is boo-ed for being dull.

    Junior football is a nice idea in principle but absolutely horrific to watch. The SPL has been this way for too long as well.

  • Comment number 16.

    Why don't the media make more of this?
    I'm sure you'll find many articles like Jim's over the years, different names but same circumstances

    Why don't the media try and apply pressure by keeping this in the limelight?
    Instead they revert to type and report the usual inane stories on pointless exclusives made by players/managers.
    It's just paper filler and holds no substance.
    Our game is a mess and solving the problem needs to be foremost in everyone's thoughts

    So Jim, what can you and other reporters do to keep public awareness?

  • Comment number 17.

    Mark McGhee may well have had more success in landing Reda Johnson had he not found it necessary to tell all and sundry about what a find he was prior to signing him.

    It wasn't even just the once he sounded off about him.

    At least give yourself a chance, Mark

  • Comment number 18.

    I'm pretty darned old and Scottish football is at its lowest ebb that I can recall. A home defeat for Celtic in Europe is pretty rare, (ask Man U) albeit Dinamo are well into their domestic season. Motherwell were always going to struggle against Steau but Aberdeen (and Falkirk previously) is just humiliation. I have no answers just despair. Do Vaduz and Olumuc *really* get more TV cash than the SPL? No skill, no hope.

  • Comment number 19.

    As a Lanarkshire man it has always baffled me why the local clubs - Motherwell, Airdrie, Hamiliton, Clyde etc,etc - don't pool their resources and have one world class youth training camp rather than umpteen smaller, poorly funded ones. It could even be part funded by the local council, SFA or lottery money. When the players hit an age where they are ready for first team football then the clubs could have an annual draft to select the players they want.

    I am sure other parts of Scotland could follow suit with region centers of excellence rather than multiple shoestring youth teams honing there skills amoungst the broken glass and dog turds of the local public park?

  • Comment number 20.

    Jim, much of what you say is absolutely spot on. In my view as an Aberdeen supporter who has also watched both Dundee and Dundee United in their best days, there are 4 major problems in Scottish football at present.
    1. The quality of player and youth player coming into many teams is poor. Too many are signed for height and/or pace and have poor technical skills. They do not seem to learn about the game as young players did in the past - even though it might have been through errors, rather than coaching.
    2. The SPL is a dead competition. When the Premier League was brought in in 1975, it rejuvenated Scottish football and allowed smaller teams like Aberdeen, Dundee United and Hearts to close the gap on the Old Firm. The SPL does none of this and needs to be revised into a 14 team league, with a shorter 26 game season. This will allow more time for teams to prepare pre season and for top players to rest for European games (The main focus of football now whether we agree or not)
    3. An end to the "jobs for the boys" culture in Scotland. This of course is a more difficult task, but re-arranging 20 or so managers amongst 12 SPL clubs (or 14) will not improve coaching standards.
    4. A more realistic approach by the smaller clubs to their ambitions and to the product they are offering to the local fans. This means looking at prices at the gate and the involvement of clubs in the local community. This also means a reduction in the money the SPL / SFA gives to clubs in the leagues that are little more than high level amateur clubs.
    I am sure if I were a supporter of East Stirling, for example, I might object to this, but there are very successful amateur clubs who given SPL / SFA funding that would do better than existing league clubs.
    At present, out best international 11 can still compete with some chance of success. As far as the rest are concerned, we are in a time on diminishing returns. The Old Firm and others, such as Aberdeen are losing touch with even average leagues. The SPL is supposed to be rated similarly to the Dutch, Russian and Belgian leagues by UEFA. Somehow, I don't think it will be long until we are rated with Lithuania and Finland. I think the standard of play is already there.

  • Comment number 21.

    This is a great subject to blog and theres a lot of common sense in the comments.

    Being the wrong side of 50, however, I have to agree with:

    StanleyCaledonian [14] - Ive heard it all before, approximately once every decade and nothing is ever done.

    Rabster [18] - the Euro results are humiliating and that is essentially the status of the Scottish game.

    Hopeforbetter [1] the youth system needs overhauled.

    Goggyturk [2] the problem starts in schools.

    Northhighlander [3] poor organisation is evident and too many bodies oversee the game with too little resourcing of/for facilities and coaches.

    Coherentmonkey [12] - the product is poor resultant from a daft structure where teams can play each other six times per season

    And, Mr Spence, gerserse [10] is also correct you appear far more optimistic that his stark reality.

    Its a very long time since Scotland produced a world class player. And to be honest, if you analyse any time slot there was only ever one or two at a time, never a whole host of players so maybe you could argue, the structure has never has been right.

    Once reality sets in, maybe well get somewhere.

    Im no putting any money on it though!

  • Comment number 22.

    If the supporters who go to games week in week out (and the ones who've given up) can see a lot of the major faults in the Scottish game, why is that the people who have the power to change it can't?(or won't)

    The SFA is by all means a dinosaur. Staffed by invisible people who seem more pre-occupied with freebies and the latest UEFA get together than the problems besetting Scottish football.

    We've heard the same rhetoric time and time again but our product seems to get worse with every passing season - yet nobody does anything about it.

    As a Dundee United supporter i have a vested interest in how Ian Cathro et al develop the Dundee United players of the future - it's a brave, yet necessary step, but one which will not bear fruit for several seasons - if at all. Fingers crossed.

  • Comment number 23.

    YES - skills, skills, skills are what is required. However while that should be the primary priority for kids, there are another group who should be taking the same approach - professionals who are already playing in first teams, many who look more skilful warming up before games than they ever do playing. The economics of the game are not going to change - most clubs in Scotland will be selling clubs so their motivation in building up skilful players will be that the more skilful the player the more money they will make. Just as a side thought, perhaps there should be a limit on how many players the Old Firm buy from other Scottish Clubs, besides buying off the players that make other teams competitive, they often get dumped in the reserves, retarding their skill development.

  • Comment number 24.

    What made Scottish footballers great was Jimmy Johnstone style tanner ba' poverty. It isn't coming back.
    However it was teams trying to compete with David Murray and Fergus McCann level funding that destroyed the SPL along with the two gentlemen running the league for their own benefit. Even St. Mirren ended up getting their fingers badly burnt and now have zero ambition. There seems no way forward.

  • Comment number 25.

    I despair. Reading comments like no. 24 and earlier, there's still people in the UK who believe poverty and street football are the only methods of producing talented players.

    These are the same kind of people who think every Brazilian footballer grew up poor and learnt his technical skills on a beach. An image that would make technically superb Brazilians from wealthy backgrounds such as Kaka & Leonardo, or Brazilians coached from a young age in academies like Dunga or Roberto Carlos, laugh. Using the poverty/street football logic the streets of Haiti, Peru, Bangladesh and Rwanda must be teeming with players with the skills of a new Pele, Law, Johnstone, Zico or Zidane eh?

    Poverty doesn't make good footballers, any more than wealth does. Playing in a street doesn't make a kid better than playing in an indoor hall. Its in the child's upbringing - its in the mentality he has, his willingness to work hard, practice, and his hunger to achieve. This is influenced and formed by his parents, teachers, coaches, friends, and the availability of role models/heroes he sees out on the pitch and seeks to emulate. It doesn't matter to a football-loving boy what surface he's playing on or how much money his family has - he just wants to play, win and impress his friends and contemporaries. It seems to me far too football writers are far too removed from childhood to remember this. Easier to blame Scotland's decline on fat, lazy, computer-loving kids who have it too easy, not like in 'their day'.

    Get more footbll time in the school curriculum, make ticket prices and training sessions of SPL more accessible to the under 12s, convince parents and councils to stop fretting about kids playing outdoors (how many parks have no ball game signs now? How many school fields are locked off after school hours?), and let every football loving boy to what he most wants to - play anywhere, anytime. That's what is needed.

  • Comment number 26.


    The reason that Scotland had world class players in the past was street football and poverty. They (we) had nothing else to do but play football. Same goes for the Brazilians of the past. The preponderance of Africans at the top of football today may be related.

    The reason why Scotland has no good, never mind world class players now is that it is a very small country with an over emphasis on physical attributes for commercial reasons (getting them playing at a professional level early). It may also be a legacy of Andy Roxborough and the robot blazerati generation.

  • Comment number 27.

    As well as a better structure and youth coaching, we need a change in attitude. Currently we take so much pride in the meaty challenges of the game, taking players out when on a counter attack with so called "professional fouls" which are applauded. And in my youth team (a few years back) we were told, for example, to "go out and nail that skilful winger in the opposition". If such a hard-man attitude continues over a skilful-man, we won't catch up with our more silky competitors.

  • Comment number 28.

    Craig Levein is telling it like its at.Like the guy, he seems to be honest above all. Pity Jim throws in the Celtic / Rangers dominance thrown in to keep the pot boiling. They DO dominate and Celtic have the best coaching system in Scotland. Dundee football hasn't been interesting for about 30 years so it must be some breakfast the wee man is, or was having.

    I'm hacked off with initatives from the SFA. We were all told that Andy Roxburgh was a great coach....he wasn't, that Craig Brown was a great coach....he wasn't.The ex president Ernie Walker had a committee going for years and produced little, if results are to be believed.

    perhaps Jim could enlighten us about the difference between Coaching and Managing. Some of the great managers were not great footballers, or even coaches!....they just knew how to motivate football players.

    so start with this Jim, Gordon Strachan claimed to be a great coach, he told the world his job was to make good players better................he couldn't,if you think he could could you name me 6 players he has signed and improved. but he could spot a good player....agreed.(but so can I)

    If a ten year old boy has real ability, and it shines from him, say like Jimmy Johnstone or currently Lionel Messi, in whose care would you put him to have him develop to maturity and fulfuil his potential? No one in Scotland IMO.

    I would get him the hell out of Scotland and like Andy Murray go to a place of excellence where they can really develop youth potential in whatever sport

    And thats where the problem lies, who coaches the coaches? we have settled for people who talk a good game in the Scottish scene, we tell people our coaches are first class. They aren't,

    Unfortunately our football education is like our general education, it used to be among the best in the world, its now third rate. We settle for just talking a good game now. Thats why Andy Gray makes so much money with Sky.

  • Comment number 29.

    Where does this 'poverty' myth spring from, that's what I'd like to know? Because of course, the dutch team (a country with a standard of living at least comparable to ours) are absolutely honking, aren't they?

    The truth is that players are no better or no worse than they were 30 years ago.... it's the rest of football that's moved on, and we've failed to move with it. Watch the Scotland-Holland match from 1978 (the supposed high water mark of Scottish football), and I mean the WHOLE match, not just the selected highlights that we've seen countless times over the past 30 years. The technique and ability are pretty much the same as what we have today, if anything it's poorer, but other countries have 'cottoned on' (as if it's some great revelation) to the fact that football skills need to be coached if they are to develop, you can't just rely on the instinctive skills that most footballers are born with.

    A starting point, as other posters have pointed out, would be to ditch the 'Big Lad' mentality. How many of us can point to 2 guys that we knew during our school days, one full of skill, the other just a big lump, and conclude that it was the big lump that made it as a footballer?

    You also hear it from managers. They sign someone and the first thing they say is that 'he's a strong, athletic lad, get's about' etc. No mention of whether he's actually a good footballer!

    Another step forward would be an independent review of what actually goes on at Largs. We're constantly told that it's the best coaching course in the world (mostly by the SFA, it has to be said), and yet we're still being subjected to coaches as limited and short sighted as Jim Jeffries and Gus Mcpherson etc.

    Finally, we need to change our whole attitude, and by that I mean players, fans, governing bodies etc. George Burley noted that what went previously for Scotland wasn't enough to get us past that final qualification hurdle, so he's trying to change us into a more continental, passing side. All he gets in return is a load of pointless, cliched criticism. For some in the media, his crime is not being Graeme Souness, but for others (and most fans) it's the lack of 'Scottish Passion' that does for them, as if charging round a field, beating your chest like a gorilla on viagra is enough to win a football match. Can someone define what this 'passion' thing is that would win us football matches? Not giving up is a admirable attribute, but when all you can back that up with is crunching tackle, and then a punt into row Z, it's not going to move us forward any.

    BTW Good blog from Mr Spence. Can we assume that Mr Young has been given the heave-ho, and we can actually look forward to reading something with incite, rather than something that leaves you feeling less intelligent for having read it?

  • Comment number 30.

    jim,its the football coaches of our young lads from 5 to 14 ages.whats the first thing they do at around the pitch a few times to warm that age should not have to work on their fitness.lets get the baw oot instead and practice our basics.levein is spot on

  • Comment number 31.

    I know this is completely unrelated to the current topic but I am looking for an answer to a question which is proving very diffucult to get through normal routes so here goes.
    Is the sportsound team running with the SPL Predictor this season, need to get some info on this ASAP


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