A LEADING grassroots football activist last night predicted that a Scottish Professional Football League takeover of youth development would have disastrous consequences for the sport.
Willie Smith, who has been the driving force behind Hillwood Boys' Club in Glasgow for more than 40 years, insisted that the SPFL taking over responsibility for youth development from the Scottish Football Association does not bear thinking about.
"These people have already proved they are incompetent in terms of developing footballers of real quality for this country," he said. "Now they want to take control of the whole process, lock, stock and barrel."
Smith and Musselburgh Windsor president Scott Robertson set up realgrassroots.co.uk in 2010 to petition the Scottish Parliament about the adverse effects the SFA's youth initiative is already having on boys' clubs and similar organisations. At the time there were 2700 boys in the youth initiative - now it has been rebranded as Club Academy Scotland and the figure had increased to 3185 at the last count.
"The self-interested and greedy actions of some professional clubs have already had a debilitating effect on grassroots football," Smith said. "Boys' teams have folded and they routinely come in for our players and sometimes coaches.
"This isn't even about developing elite footballers - a lot of boys they take are just jersey fillers. In other words, these clubs need them to tick boxes and access public funding.
"To put this in perspective, Germany, with a population of 82 million, has 4735 boys under the age of 19 in its revamped and successful academy system. We have a population of just over five million and 3185 boys.
"Not only is our figure ridiculously high, but the system isn't even working. Club Academy Scotland gets £2m of public money every year, and since the youth initiative was set up almost 20 years ago literally millions of pounds have been thrown at it.
"I challenge the people at the SPFL who are trying to take over youth football to name even two or three players they have produced in that time who could hold their own in any club in Europe. What are the Scottish public, whether they are interested in football or not, getting in return for their money?
"The players being produced now are no better than boys' clubs used to develop - at no cost to the taxpayer because we are all volunteers. My club alone produced Alex McLeish, Kenny Burns, Tommy Coyne and Owen Coyle. It was boys' clubs which developed Kenny Dalglish, Darren Fletcher and just about every top Scottish footballer of the past you could care to name."
The Scottish Parliament's petitions committee will meet again on May 20 to continue their investigations into the damage being caused to grassroots football by professional clubs. Among those scheduled to appear before MSPs is the SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster.
"Never at any point in the last four years has Neil Doncaster or the organisation he represents invited us in for dialogue," Smith said. "They also refused to investigate issues surrounding a serious concern which was raised in the Scottish Parliament. At least Stewart Regan and Campbell Ogilvie at the SFA have been willing to sit round a table and talk to us about the huge problems facing grassroots football.
"They have listened to the issues and taken them very seriously. My impression is that they would like to help us, but are being held back by the clubs. We have been telling the Scottish Parliament for the last four years that the greed and self-interest of these clubs is threatening to destroy grassroots football.
"The prospect of the SPFL being completely in control of youth development in this country, with no checks or supervision from the SFA, is frightening."