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Saints are breaking down the west of Scotland barriers

THE youth department at the St Mirren training ground is found towards the back of the complex.

David Longwell, St Mirren's head of youth coaching, with some of the young players the Paisley club have been developing in recent years. Picture: Keith Campbell
David Longwell, St Mirren's head of youth coaching, with some of the young players the Paisley club have been developing in recent years. Picture: Keith Campbell

Unlike the modern, Portakabin-style construction where the first-team squad are based, the youths are housed in a building that for years was used as a pavilion by local football and cricket teams.

That it is made predominantly out of red brick seems apt, given that there are days when David Longwell feels like he is banging his head against it.

Still, St Mirren's head of youth has plenty to be pleased about, as over the past decade he has helped put together one of the most successful youth programmes in Scottish senior football.

St Mirren are the only club to have been awarded a five-star Club Academy Scotland rating (Celtic and Rangers have six, the rest four or fewer), while Longwell can also point at the stream of players that have moved through the system and into the first team. Six youth-team graduates featured regularly in Danny Lennon's matchday squad of 18 last season, and a further four have just been promoted to join them.

If a young player harbours an ambition of making it as a professional then he could do a lot worse than hitch his wagon to St Mirren's rising star. Or so you would think. Longwell's experiences, however, tell a different story.

St Mirren run youth teams from age six all the way up to under-20, and recruiting players, given their credentials and track record, should be relatively straightforward. However, the west of Scotland is a funny place. For some parents the prospect of boasting that their boy has just signed for Celtic or Rangers holds greater appeal than sending him somewhere he would have a genuine chance of making the first team. With the bigger clubs also not shy to press home their competitive advantage, it is little surprise that Longwell is often left feeling somewhat frustrated.

"Unfortunately, in the west of Scotland, some parents can't see past the Old Firm," Longwell told Herald Sport. "And they should do. Thankfully, some people now realise that if you come to a provincial club - and one that is bringing players through - you will get more of a chance. But it's difficult at times.

"You try to explain to parents, but sometimes it's just about their ego. They just want to boast that their boy is playing for Celtic or Rangers. They're living their dreams through their kids, which is wrong.

"They've got to be smarter and look at where their boy is going to get a chance. We're giving kids an opportunity and we would hope that parents would want them to come to St Mirren.

"It can be quite cut-throat, even at a younger age. Bigger clubs sometimes don't act the way they should and just do whatever they can to get a player. There's a lot of stuff going on out there that's underhand. There are some scouts following parents into car parks to start conversations about their kids. It happens time after time and at that age level that's wrong.

"We've got a good reputation, but other clubs know that and so they just follow our teams about from pitch to pitch, trying to talk to parents. I understand that that's their job, but there's a way of going about things. What we're doing is right."

Longwell's principles are unshakeable. He has a vision of how he wants his youth teams to play and he will not deviate from it. "Our goalkeepers, from aged 17 and younger, don't kick the ball out," he added. "Never. We always build from the back as we want to develop technique so that kids become comfortable on the ball. We will lose goals that way, but we accept that. Through time the kids get comfortable in that position and they're able to get out of tight areas because they're used to being under pressure on the ball.

"When they get older you want them to win games, but in the right manner. They've got to win with style. Some teams just launch the ball up the pitch; that's not football in our opinion. Our way is to pass the ball from the back, to be expressive and innovative, and exciting to watch.

"We want the kids to enjoy what they're doing. You still want to win the game but the development has to come first. If you hoof a ball up the park it's just a percentage ball, a 50-50 chance. You could do that all day, but will kids develop that way? I don't think they will. Long balls don't happen in any of our teams."

St Mirren's player of the year awards were swept up by youth team graduates - John McGinn, Sean Kelly and Jason Naismith all recognised for stellar seasons, while Kenny McLean was the SPFL player of the month for May. These, Longwell hopes, are the poster boys for future generations.

"For young kids looking at it, they see players who went through the same programme and that inspires them," he added. "We've had John here since he was six or seven years old and when you see what he's gone on to achieve, it's a fantastic story for the whole academy.

"Kids need opportunity and we're giving them that here at St Mirren."

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