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Taking a new pathway in order to catch up

THE squeak of training shoe on gym floor had a recognisable echo of times past, the neat shimmy by the young footballer was thrillingly reminiscent of the day of the tanner ba' and the hall was traditionally functional, familiar even to those for whom a bean bag is the very cutting edge of hi-tech equipment.

Mark Wotte, left, joins Holyrood Secondary head teacher Laurie Byrne and his pupils as he provides a mid-term report on the Regional Performance Schools programme.  Picture: Craig Watson/SNS
Mark Wotte, left, joins Holyrood Secondary head teacher Laurie Byrne and his pupils as he provides a mid-term report on the Regional Performance Schools programme. Picture: Craig Watson/SNS

Yet the scene was the very future of Scottish football. A group of 12-year-olds were switching a ball around the floor with a pleasing certainty, an easy fluency while watched by an attentive coach.

The venue was Holyrood Secondary on the south side of Glasgow. The alma mater of such as Paddy Crerand, Alan Brazil and Mike Jackson now seeks to produce more heroes.

The youngsters are part of the Scottish Football Association's performance schools programme. More than 100 players have been selected and placed in seven schools, under seven coaches. They will receive coaching tailor-made to their needs while also being educated in the academic subjects. The mantra is to make them better players, better people and to offer them access to better grades.

The basic idea is to throw all these ingredients in the pot and leave on simmer for four years. By the time the boys are 16 they will be passed to the care and attention of professional clubs and, in time, will play for Scotland.

This pathway is, of course, strewn with obstacles. The road to the top for the aspiring footballer in Scotland is akin to those perilous journeys taken by those young animals in David Attenborough documentaries who have to escape the jaws of danger before making it to the sea. The talent and commitment of a young player must endure and be complemented with good fortune with injuries and social factors before he or she can make the professional grade.

On a bright day in Govanhill, these shadows can be banished with the torch of hope. It is easy, perhaps even forgiveable, to be cynical but it is impossible to argue against the notion that something is being done to improve the flow of talent and that players, coaches and teachers are enthused.

Mark Wotte, the Dutchman who is SFA performance director, is upbeat about the uniqueness of the programme. "I believe in the world there is no such thing that we do,'' he said lapsing into an idiosyncratic English. But he was clear on his expectations. "I am pretty sure that the vast majority of these kids will play SPL, SFL 1, 2, 3. That is for sure. We think it is not only important for Scottish football at the top end but it will lift the general level of Scottish football,'' he said.

The programme has been in operation for just six months but Wotte states simply that he knows it will work. "We are on the right track. That is an encouragement. I already had evidence it was working because we had a pilot in Falkirk and I knew it had worked in Holland. But to do it on this scale – with seven schools and seven sort of football teachers – is always a challenge."

The other schools are Hazelhead Academy, Aberdeen, St John's High School, Dundee, Graeme High School, Falkirk, Braidhurst High School, Motherwell, Broughton High School, Edinburgh, and Grange Academy Kilmarnock.

Brian McLaughlin, the former Celtic player, is the coach at Holyrood and he emphasises the seriousness of the intent. "Many years ago it was the case that you did so much training on your own because you wanted to become a football player,'' he said. "We are trying to create the same mindset we had years ago when boys needed to become footballers. If they want to have a career in the game then so much of it will come down to themselves as an individual. They need to go and train harder and work harder than everyone else; there is no real secret to it."

Wotte, though, admitted Scottish football was playing a game of catch-up. In Holland and elsewhere, children are attached to clubs and coaches at the age of six.

This gap is hard to bridge but there are other problems. The director cited the lack of 3G pitches which allow play to continue in the worst of weather.

"The number of 3G pitches is not going to help the development of Scottish football. In Holland there are 2000 or 3000. We need double what we have. We have bad surfaces – we cannot coach a player properly on bad surfaces – we have postponements and there are some kids who do not play for weeks in the winter. In other countries – Germany, Holland, Spain – it is all 3G,'' he said, adding that he had visited the training academies of Real Madrid, Feyenoord, Ajax and Zenit St Petersburg and all clubs preferred the synthetic surface for youth players.

Wotte also confronted the criticism that the performance school system was weighed heavily in favour of the bigger, more precocious player.

''Technique is very important with agility, mindsets. It doesn't matter whether they are tall or small. We never look at that. Of course, at a latter stage of their development it might matter. If you want to become a central defender you need to be 6ft something,'' he said.

He also conceded there would be "late developers" who would have to be accommodated further down the line. "We have evidence of top professional players who have been this, international players who played in a World Cup final, two I know from Holland who I have worked with. Dirk Kuyt was 18 and had never played on a high level. He signed a professional contract for Utrecht and had an unbelievable career,'' said Wotte.

"Joris Mathijsen was a player for Willem II when I was his manager. They were actually thinking of letting him go before we made him a central defender and he played 80 games for Holland. So, yes, we are aware of the late developers."

However, Wotte stressed that the most important factor was dedication. The young players have to feed in every piece of information about their diet, their sleeping patterns, their levels of fatigue into daily diaries that are logged on computer and can be accessed by coaches. Their commitment is set down for the ages. At 20, coaches will be able to look back on these players and see precisely how and what they were doing as 12-year-olds.

But there is one constant. "You can't take someone without the workrate, the desire," added Wotte.

But, intriguingly, he placed dribblers above passers in the wish list. "I want the guys who want to go one on one,'' he said. "It is easy to talk about Xavi and Iniesta but we have several examples in Scotland – Jimmy Johnstone or our national team manager Gordon Strachan, who was a very enjoyable player to watch. Why are we not producing more of these?''

This question must now be answered in the classrooms and gym halls of seven schools in Scotland.

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