WHEN Scotland play England at Wembley later this year the friendly will be billed as a resumption of hostilities after a long period of calm, given that the Auld Enemies have not played each other for 14 years.
There are football people in Scotland who will sneer at that description. For them, a bitter battle is being fought with England on a weekly basis, and Scotland is losing it.
The transfer of Ryan Fraser from Aberdeen to Bournemouth has been highlighted as an example of exciting young talent being plucked from the Scottish scene long before it has had the chance to fully bloom. That's entirely accurate, although Fraser, despite being only 18 and having played just two full 90 minutes for Aberdeen, can be considered a veteran when compared with some others who were taken in previous raids. With a total of 23 appearances, Fraser played far more first-team games than Islam Feruz did before fleeing Celtic for Chelsea, Scott Allan did before hightailing it out of Dundee United to WBA, or Matthew Kennedy did before speeding from Kilmarnock to Everton.
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All of them were symbolic of a depressing reality. Scotland has always been a fertile source of footballers for English clubs but never like this, never losing so many straight from the coaching cradle. Now English clubs barely wait to see how a teenager will handle first-team football in Scotland. They know about them two or three years before they even reach that level and, if they like them, they come in hard and heavy to spirit them down south.
Players younger than 16 and registered with Scottish clubs are frequently "tapped up" and made offers which break football rules. English clubs may not send the same number of scouts to Scotland to find ready-made first-team players but their coverage of youth games remains exhaustive. They know about the most exciting young Scottish players, from as young as 14 and 15, long before the rest of us have heard of them. One seasoned youth development coach at one of our biggest clubs describes the scouting of youth games as "aggressive" and "feverish".
What can be done about it? A Scottish club can report an English one to the SFA, Uefa, Fifa and the Football Association, but financial punishments – minor fines – are easily absorbed by clubs rich enough to consider them irrelevant. The temptation to make money in England, and the disruptive influence of some agents, are further disadvantages for Scottish clubs. Last year one agent stood to make £50,000 if he could get a teenage Scottish player to a certain English club – £50,000 if he could pull it off, nothing for him if he couldn't. Surprise, surprise, the player duly made the move.
Fifa's stipulated compensation figures are inadequate, certainly no deterrent to English clubs with far superior broadcasting income. The formation of a new Barclays Premier League under-21 league this season left their clubs with squads to fill and one way to do so, for relatively little cost, was to look north of the border. Paying Fifa's compensation fees for young players is considered a justifiable and easy outlay.
Clydesdale Bank Premier League clubs are ranked as category two when it comes to cross-border compensation fees, with Barclays Premier League and most npower Championship clubs category one. Aberdeen have argued – unsuccessfully so far – that top-flight Scottish clubs should be classified as category one in relation to those English clubs because it would be an acknowledgment that Scotland is so frequently raided. That would mean the English clubs had to pay more than twice as much as they currently do for a young player.
There would be two beneficial consequences for Scottish clubs: the best young talent would be more likely to stay in Scotland for at least a year or two of first-team football before leaving, and it would mean that, when they did eventually go, the club which reared them would be more appropriately rewarded.
At the moment, clubs are spending sizeable sums on developing a player only for him to be taken cheaply. Celtic spend close to £1.5m on youth development every year, Rangers around £1m, Aberdeen £800,000, Hibernian, Hearts and Dundee United roughly the same. That pays the teenage players' wages, youth coaching staff, medical staff costs, physiotherapists, the purchase of kit, hiring facilities, running minibuses, sometimes the players' travelling expenses, some meals if they're over 16 and signed, plus umpteen other costs. It can all sound quite humdrum but that stuff doesn't pay for itself.
Scottish clubs try to protect themselves by putting their most promising teenage players on the longest deals allowed: three years up to the age of 18, possibly five years for those older than that. Otherwise, there is little return for clubs which may lose a player for next-to-nothing after having reared him from the age of eight or nine. The gamble is that contracts good enough to persuade teenagers –when they are being seduced by the idea of moving to England and made restless by some agents – have to be honoured by clubs, and someone who shows great promise at 16, 17 or 18 may not fulfil it.
Clubs will remain committed to youth development because enough players do come through to first teams and it is the best way to maintain a squad's wage levels. But the cold reality is that some of Scotland's best young players are being swiped before most fans have had the pleasure of watching them.