The Promise of Youth: Past & Present

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Much has been made in recent times about the sorry state of Scottish football and the dire situation that our game is in. The national side may have experienced a slight resurgence in form of late, however our club game has seldom been so heavily criticised. I’ve never been convinced that our game is quite as bad as many people make out, although I do accept that financially we’re now experiencing a bit of a crisis. One shining light in this dark time, however, has been the emergence of many younger, home grown players. Although predominantly through necessity rather than choice, the reliance on youth by many top flight Scottish clubs is a move that the optimists claim will prove pivotal in years to come.

It is true that we’re seeing a healthy amount of Scottish youngsters being given a chance at first team level across the country, however simply giving these lads a chance isn’t always enough. Are they good enough? Will they develop into international players in the future? For most of these players it’s very hard to answer those questions at this early stage. For the likes of Ryan Gauld, Stuart Armstrong, Stevie May and Ryan Jack you would like to think that, barring serious injury, they are well on their way to becoming the finished article. For most of the others, it’s too early to tell. Some have already been in and around the national squad and, in the case of Hearts skipper Danny Wilson, already capped.

Last weekend saw no fewer than 31 Scots aged 21 or under involved in Scottish Premiership matches. By that I mean players who actually played a part in their side’s game, either from the start or off the bench. This was spread across 9 teams. Celtic, Inverness and Ross County had no Scottish players under 22 involved in their matches. Here is the full list:

Hearts (11) – Danny Wilson, Kevin McHattie, Scott Robinson, Callum Tapping, Jamie Walker, Sam Nicholson, Callum Paterson, Gary Oliver, David Smith, Billy King, Dale Carrick.

Dundee Utd (4) – Andrew Robertson, Jon Souttar, Stuart Armstrong, Ryan Gauld.

St Mirren (4) – Sean Kelly, Jason Naismith, Kenny McLean, John McGinn.

Hibs (3)  – Jordan Forster, Danny Handling, Jason Cummings.

Kilmarnock (3) – Lee Ashcroft , Craig Slater, Rory McKenzie.

Aberdeen (2) – Ryan Jack, Nicky Low.

Motherwell (2) – Stewart Carswell, Craig Moore.

Partick (1) – Stuart Bannigan.

St Johnstone (1) – Stevie May.

Quite clearly, and not surprisingly, Hearts had by far the most youngsters playing. However that figure is not necessarily a glowing recommendation of the quality of the Tynecastle kids, since financial issues and a transfer embargo have rather forced the club’s hand on fielding so many of their academy graduates. That’s not to say there isn’t promise amongst the fresh-faced Jambos, but in an ideal world most of them would be introduced gradually and with more experience around them. Dundee United probably have the best situation, with a handful of younger stars playing regularly with some older heads to help guide them, and with the option of a few more squad members to bring in if need be.

So is this a new era of giving youth a chance? Well, let’s turn the clock back 10 years and compare the same weekend in the top flight calendar. In December 2003 there were actually 29 Scottish players aged 21 or under involved in SPL matches, spread across 10 teams (Dunfermline and Livingston had none). Just 2 short of the figure this year, which is of course slightly misleading because more than a third of the players last weekend were from Hearts. But of course it is not all about simply playing at a young age, the main thing is developing and, hopefully, becoming internationals for Scotland down the line.

So how did the class of ‘December 2003’ turn out then?

220 Scottish caps in total have been won by those 29 players. Well over half of these caps have come from the Hibs and Hearts players, 149 in total. The Easter Road club’s youth products that appeared that day in 2003 have claimed an impressive 81 caps between them. Hearts only had 2 Scots under 22 playing that day, stark contrast to the present day, but both of them ended up winning more than a few caps for Scotland. Andy Webster had two strong spells in the capital and is now one of the club’s highest cap earners for Scotland, whilst Craig Gordon would surely have added more to his already impressive tally had it not been for injury. John Kennedy of Celtic is also one who should have won far more caps had it not been for an unfortunate injury.

Here’s the full list from December 2003 (including total caps now won for Scotland and the player’s current club):

Aberdeen (5)
Scott Morrison – 0 International caps, now plays for Phoenix FC in the US third tier.
Darren Mackie – 0 caps, now plays for Turriff United in the Highland league.
Ricky Foster – 0 caps, now plays for Rangers.
Scott Muirhead – 0 caps, now plays in Australia for Richmond Soccer Club.
Zander Diamond – 0 caps, plays for Burton Albion in League 2.

Hibs (5)
Steven Whittaker 23 caps, now plays for Norwich City
Scott Brown 36 caps, now plays for Celtic
Kevin Thomson 3 caps, now back at Hibs
Gary O’Connor 16 caps, now without a club
Derek Riordan 3 caps, now without a club.

Motherwell (4)
Steven Hammell 1 cap, now back at Motherwell
Stephen Pearson 10 caps, now plays for Bristol City
Paul Quinn 0 caps, now plays for Doncaster Rovers
David Clarkson 2 caps, now plays for Bristol Rovers

Kilmarnock (3)
Stephen Murray 0 caps, last played for Stenhousemuir
Gary McDonald 0 caps, now plays for St Johnstone
Kris Boyd 18 caps, now back at Kilmarnock

Partick Thistle (3)
John Gemmell 0 caps, now plays for Stenhousemuir
Andy Ross 0 caps, last played in Australia
Emmanuel Panther 0 caps, now without a club

Celtic (2)
John Kennedy 1 cap, now a scout for Celtic
Shaun Maloney 31 caps, now plays for Wigan Athletic

Dundee (2)
Bobby Linn 0 caps, now plays for Arbroath
Mark Fotheringham 0 caps, now plays for Notts County

Dundee Utd (2)
Mark Wilson 1 cap, now back at Dundee United
Mark Kerr 0 International caps, now plays for Partick Thistle

Hearts (2)
Craig Gordon 40 caps, now without a club
Andy Webster 28 caps, now plays for Coventry

Rangers (2)
Stephen Hughes 1 cap, now plays for East Fife
Chris Burke 6 caps, now plays for Birmingham City


So what can we take from all of the above? Well, for one thing it shows that very little has changed in 10 years in terms of the number of younger Scottish players getting game time in the top flight. If it wasn’t for the restrictions imposed on Hearts then the figure may actually be less. But that can be misleading. For one thing the number of Scottish players overall, of all ages, may well have increased. And as I’ve already said, it’s not necessarily the sheer volume of youngsters playing that ultimately matters, it’s where they can go in the future that counts. 14 of the 29 players from 2003 have never earned a single Scotland cap, a further 8 haven’t made it out of single figures.

Draw your own conclusions, this is just one angle and one set of statistics. Over 200 caps sounds like quite a good return for one batch of Scottish kids. Can the ‘class of December 2013’ do any better? Only time will tell.

L Dunsire

Hearts supporter and film enthusiast from Musselburgh. Follow me on Twitter @lauriedunsire