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Determined to keep on playing the long game

THE FUTURE of Scottish football is being assailed from unlikely angles.

Mark Wotte and Scot Gemmill promote the under-17 side's European Championship elite round  tie against Bosnia-Herzegovina on Wednesday. Picture: SNS
Mark Wotte and Scot Gemmill promote the under-17 side's European Championship elite round tie against Bosnia-Herzegovina on Wednesday. Picture: SNS

The Scottish Football Association is trying to build a foundation when the building blocks keep getting stolen by the likes of Rio Ave, Brechin City and Stenhousemuir.

A performance strategy is bedding in which is not intended to fully bear fruit until 2020, when the initial recruits will be 20 or 21. It is based on around 100 children a year being hothoused and given daily coaching along with their school education.

The system also includes a network of seven regional performance coaches across the country. The schools system is going to plan. The difficulty, here and now, is pesky clubs realising that talented coaches always will be susceptible to leaving long-term youth development roles to realise personal ambitions in the club game.

In 2012 Ian Cathro left for Rio Ave and Ray McKinnon for Brechin. Last month Scott Booth was spirited away by Stenhousemuir. All three were valued members of the SFA network, all of them lost to clubs who cannot be counted among the game's powers. The godfather of this network, national performance director Mark Wotte, might be entitled to see this little exodus as dispiriting, or even as a vote of no confidence. In fact the Dutchman is bullish and entirely pragmatic.

"I can't blame guys if they go their own way and want to become a first team manager," he said. "There are plenty of coaches who are still with us: Ricky Sbragia, Billy Stark, seven performance coaches. It's not a worry for us. There are enough good coaches in Scotland to replace Scott Booth or Ian Cathro or Ray McKinnon. Sometimes you can get better coaches. If someone leaves it gives you the opportunity to bring in better people. I'm not worried at all."

Wotte spent 15 years as a club manager or coach so he has no need for lessons on the attractions of the frontline club game as opposed to generally unheralded youth development work. When he joined the SFA, Booth had told the governing body he eventually wanted to try club management.

The SFA's view is that the system being overseen by Wotte is sufficiently robust to survive the temporary setbacks of losing an important coach. "We have created an organisation, that I am managing, and it is easy to replace [individuals] because the system stays the same. The talent identification process stays the same, the way we want to play football stays the same. We have a pool of coaches.

"Scot Gemmill is going to take over Scott Booth's job. Succession planning is important if you manage a department. Sometimes you think it would have been better if someone had stayed for another year but if someone wants to go for his own chances [you must let them]. Maybe it's not a step up at the moment but it can become a step up afterwards. I don't mind."

Wotte's enthusiasm appears to be bomb-proof. He has been the SFA's national performance director, the country's first, since his appointment in the summer of 2011. The first draft of recruits to the performance school system came in 2012 - around 100 of the country's most talented 12-year-olds - and Wotte insists that they are already showing the benefits of far more coaching time than children a year or two older than them. "We started 18 months ago with the boys and the girls born in 2000. They are now more or less Scotland under-14s and that crop of players is amazing. Really, really, really good.

"The 2000s are better than the '99s, better than the '98s. Why? Because they have been coached and trained for five days a week for a year-and-a-half already, as well as three training sessions a week at their pro youth clubs. We already see evidence when we have gatherings of the 2000s. Their individual quality is already better than the guys who are not attending the performance schools. That's encouraging.

"The strategy works at the moment. The first year [2011] we prepared for this strategy, and in 2012 we started the performance school and implemented a new philosophy with the national team. We play mainly 4-3-3 with the national youth teams but we can play 4-4-2 when we have to manage a game or we think that's needed for tactical reasons, it's not a problem. These things are encouraging.

"And it makes a massive difference if the senior Scotland team is doing well. If I am doing my job very well but the senior team is losing every game there is negativity around Scottish football. We cannot afford that because we are playing catch-up. Everything we do in Scotland has been done in other countries for the last 15 years."

Despite criticism from some club managers, including Stuart McCall and Derek Adams, Wotte was adamant that the country's youth coaches and chairman favour the current under-20 league with its quota of overage players, rather than reverting to something closer to a traditional "reserve" league.

"I know that some first team managers maybe don't think about developing their kids, they just want to have a place for their first team players to play when they are not being used on the Saturday or Sunday. But that's a totally different objective. It's not my responsibility to keep those players busy. We have to develop players."

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