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Billy Stark names youthful squad as old guard prepare to graduate

WHEN it comes to the Scotland under-21 squad, a long-term perspective is usually beneficial.

Scotland under-21 coach Billy Stark believes moving to the Sky Bet Championship should help Stevie May earn a full call-up. Picture: SNS
Scotland under-21 coach Billy Stark believes moving to the Sky Bet Championship should help Stevie May earn a full call-up. Picture: SNS

Billy Stark yesterday named his squad for the final two matches of the current campaign away to Slovakia and Luxembourg but, with qualification for next summer's European Championships all but impossible, Stark chose to name a youthful group, the majority of whom will still be eligible when the Euro 2017 campaign gets underway next year.

That meant call-ups for the likes of Ryan Christie of Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Hearts' Sam Nicholson, Stephen Hendrie of Hamilton Academical and Dominic Hyam of Reading, all of whom could shoulder the responsibility over the next few years of taking the Scotland under-21s to their first finals appearance since 1996.

"It's a young squad," admitted Stark. "I've always tried to include younger players on the basis that they have earned it. Throughout the campaign we've introduced more and more. We can get second place with two wins as Slovakia's last game is in Holland, but I don't think the points total will be enough.

"This then is a chance to blood younger players. We lost the August date so we don't get a lot of chances to work with the players. This gives me a chance to work with guys who are eligible for the next campaign.

"There are only four or five players in their final year - that's a conscious decision to have a core of these guys to help the younger ones settle."

Among the "older" ones making their final few appearances at this level are Aberdeen's Ryan Jack, Stuart Armstrong of Dundee United and Stevie May, now of Sheffield Wednesday. The latter is someone who has been on the brink of full-squad recognition for some time now and Stark believes moving to the Sky Bet Championship should help May finally graduate.

"I think moving to Sheffield should help Stevie make the step up to the A squad," he added. "Wednesday is a big club. It goes back to that old thing of judging Scottish Premiership against the English Championship. You could debate that all day. But Stevie's progressed incrementally.

"He had a loan at Alloa and scored 20-odd goals, then had a loan at Hamilton up the divisions and did the same again, got his chance at St Johnstone and did it again. So you've got to hand it to him. The gauntlet's been thrown down and he's risen to it every time.

"It will be a lot harder to score 20 goals down there but he got his first on Saturday so it wouldn't surprise me if he managed given what he's done previously. In terms of him making the big squad, sometimes you can be really unfortunate if there's a lot of strong competition in your area of the pitch. Maybe you don't then get the opportunities. Callum McGregor's gone up to the big squad which is great for us and for him.

"He's a forward who can come up a wide area whereas Stevie's a centre forward with Steven Fletcher, Stevie Naismith, Chris Martin, Leigh Griffiths and others in there. But I know Gordon's watching Stevie closely and he's well aware of him and he'll always ask how the boys are doing in the 21s. The evidence is there with Stevie with his goalscoring."

Another who has made the squad following a summer move is Ryan Gauld. Stark believes the midfielder will flourish in Portugual with Sporting. "He's gone to a foreign country where they play a different style of football that he obviously feels will suit him. So it is a mature attitude.

"He's a level-headed boy and it is a big thing for a young boy to go abroad, particularly to Portugal, which is not the easiest language in the world to pick up. But he's thrown himself into it and we can only benefit as a nation if we have more players going out.

"He's been playing in the B team for a few weeks and I think he's done well. I'm sure it's been said that he will be with the B team until the turn of the year anyway and that makes sense.You are talking about a Champions League club and it was always going to be difficult for him to force his way into the first team.

"That's how Ryan saw it as well - Sporting is a huge club with a pedigree for producing young players and he saw himself going there to develop and by playing a style that suits him."

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