The failure to reach three World Cups and four European Championships is a sad indictment of the Scottish FA's long-running youth initiative, but could recent developments lead to a brighter future?
Lessons, it seems, are being learned from previous mistakes. It is now three years since Celtic started a project combining football and education on a scale never seen before in the British game. It was subsequently adopted at a lower age group by Dundee United, while the SFA will roll out seven performance schools of their own in August.
The footballing aim of the Celtic and Dundee United schools is unambiguous: to produce players of a Champions League calibre. The bigger picture is to nurture better educated, well-rounded citizens who will have decent academic qualifications to fall back on if the many pitfalls of life and professional sport take their toll.
It doesn't need the caricature of the thick, sozzled Scottish footballer, or the reality of teenagers being dumped by their clubs with no prospects ahead of them, to accept that any such initiative needs to be applauded. No matter what emerges in the wake of a second disastrous season for Scottish football, finding new, and better, ways to produce players is the only way the sport can survive in its professional guise.
The concept of football training being based round a school may be novel in Britain, but as Celtic's head of youth development, Chris McCart, discovered it is commonplace elsewhere in Europe. "In the first six months of 2008, myself, Peter Lawwell and John Park went around Europe, benchmarking clubs," he says. "We went to Red Star Belgrade, Partizan, Benfica, Villarreal, PSV Eindhoven – and one thing that struck us was that every club we went to based its youth development around a school. PSV was a great example. There were about 25-30 buses taking their youth players in and out of the school."
In hugely fortuitous circumstances, St Ninian's High School in Kirkintilloch was chosen for the Celtic project. Not only was it close to the club's training academy at Lennoxtown, but the school itself had just been rebuilt and boasted new sports facilities, including football pitches and a fitness suite. The headmaster, Paul McLaughlin, had been nominated Scotland's head teacher of the year and embraced the challenge of fitting in 14 new pupils into his S3 classes. This being the west of Scotland, it is sadly necessary to point out that St Ninian's is a Roman Catholic school but, despite the fact that 75% of the new Celtic intake were not of that religious faith, this issue has caused no problems whatsoever according to the head teacher.
This coming August, in the fourth year of the project, both school and club feel confident enough to introduce Celtic youth players at S2 level. Dundee United's project started in 2010, and they plunged in at the deep end, with boys being introduced to St John's High School in the city at S1 level under a very similar scheme sanctioned by Craig Levein when he was director of football at the club.
Two of the third-year pupils who kicked the Celtic project off in 2009, Paul George and Stuart Findlay, have already played for the first team. Findlay, a 16-year-old left-sided central defender, is an outstanding exemplar for the project. So successful was he that his parents and head teacher had a real dilemma when he was offered a full-time contract by Celtic this time last year; he had excelled in his Standard Grades and the school were very keen that he should stay on to sit his Highers. The player, who made his first-team debut in a recent testimonial match against Norwich City, decided to take the contract on offer but study for Highers in his own time at college. He recently sat English and Maths in between marking Grant Holt at Carrow Road and representing Scotland Under-20s in a tournament in Amsterdam.
What's most impressive about St Ninian's is the sacrifices the boys and their parents are making in a day which starts at 6am and usually finishes with an exhausted head hitting the pillow before 10pm. It was a regime familiar to McCart, a promising swimmer, when he himself was at school. But whereas other sports have long recognised there is no gain without early morning pain, Scottish football has been fatally resistant to the rather obvious point that players might actually have to work much harder, and make sacrifices, if they are to emulate the ever-improving standards of other nations.
Instead of the four evening training sessions they would otherwise have done, the boys at St Ninian's are bused in from their homes and are working hard on their skills long before the academic day starts. After school they are given until 5pm to do homework, and then it's more training at Lennoxtown before heading home.
None of this is cheap. It costs Celtic £200,000 a year to run the project, and that will increase with the new S2 age group in August. Transport costs alone are £75,000, including the salaries of two drivers. The club also provides coaches and tutors, as well as sports scientists and welfare officers. Some boys come from other parts of Scotland and are housed with local families – another big cost for Celtic.
It's all inspiring, though, and this at a school which already provided Celtic with Paul Wilson, Stephen Crainey and Charlie Mulgrew without any such resources in place. McCart, who brings an intense professionalism to youth development, is in no doubt about what he wants the project to achieve. "Our main purpose is to produce a Champions League player, a player of the very highest standard," he says. "We want to create a world-class academy, excelling in coaching, sports science and education.
"Whereas before these boys were only training for about eight hours a week, now it is up to 20 including a game. They are doing 800-900 hours a season, which is important because there is no magic formula for becoming a great footballer – it's down to hard work, dedication and practice.
"The players' education is improving and each has an individual programme from which we can demonstrate that their stamina, speed and jumping ability has improved dramatically. Now, when they go full time with us they are hitting the ground running. We have 24 players representing Scotland at age-group level, so we think we must be doing something right. We've also had English clubs coming up to look at what we're doing and they will be introducing schools into their elite academy programmes as well."
Not only is the project innovative and exciting, it is also wholesome and a reminder of what sport should be about in these morally bankrupt days when match fixing and repugnant tax avoidance schemes for millionaires have been stealing the headlines.