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Murray Park: a school that struggles for a good report card from the inspectors

WHEN Murray Park was opened in 2001 the numbers were undeniably impressive.

Ross McCormack became the latest big-money product of the Murray Park system this week. Picture: Getty Images
Ross McCormack became the latest big-money product of the Murray Park system this week. Picture: Getty Images

A 38-acre site, six full-sized pitches, another couple of half-sized ones, three distinct parts of the complex for administration, the first team and the youth players, one state-of-the-art gym, one indoor pitch . . . at the time Scottish football had seen nothing like it. And there was one other significant figure: 11 million, the amount of pounds Rangers spent to build it.

No-one gets worked up about Murray Park these days. It is no longer the only dedicated training complex in Scottish football and after more than a decade of use - under five different managers - it is now so familiar that its facilities are taken for granted.

Over time its reputation slowly corroded. From being synonymous with excellence and ambition in terms of facilities it came to be held up as a testament to Rangers' underachievement in the field of youth development.

Articles began to be written about why Murray Park wasn't producing more youth players for Rangers. The cruellest commentators questioned whether it offered value for money. That has tended to be the narrative about Murray Park for years. "Defending Murray Park is like painting the Forth Bridge," said Jimmy Sinclair. "It never ends."

Sinclair has more than a vested interest. He has been Rangers' youth academy director at the complex since leaving the SFA in August, 2006. The other day something happened which empowered Sinclair to speak with even greater conviction about the work which goes on at Rangers' Auchenhowie base.

When Ross McCormack moved from Leeds United to Fulham on Tuesday he became Murray Park's most expensive alumni. For all its criticism, and all its accusations of underachieving, Murray Park certainly has been the cradle for footballers who went on to become some of the most-valued Scotland has produced.

Danny Wilson moved to Liverpool for £2m and the fee would have risen to £5m if he had fully broken through at Anfield. Alan Hutton transferred from Rangers to Tottenham for £9m. Charlie Adam's transfer fees total over £10m. McCormack has now eclipsed them all having swopped clubs in the English Championship for £11m.

Not all of those transfer fees benefited Rangers, of course, but they validated Sinclair's contention that Murray Park - and specifically the youth development work which goes on there - deserves more recognition than it has had.

"Any interviews I do are always about me 'defending' Murray Park," said Sinclair, with good-natured exasperation. "Maybe that's just the way it's always going to be. Maybe there's always going to be a need to do that. But I think if people took the time, and looked back over what Murray Park has produced, they would realise it's a different story. An example I would use would be Andy Little. He came to us as a raw boy and ended up an international player with Northern Ireland. Even the young lad Thomas Bendiksen, who came to us at 18, is now a Norway international."

Sinclair can easily reel off a series of names who have graduated to the Rangers team having come through the scouting and youth coaching system operating from Murray Park: McCormack, Hutton, Adam, Wilson, Little, Chris Burke, Steven Smith, John Fleck, Gregg Wylde, Jamie Ness, Rhys McCabe, Lewis Macleod, Fraser Aird, Barrie McKay.

"It's difficult for our manager because the pressure is that every game has to be won. It's always going to be difficult for a Rangers manager to throw kids in willy-nilly. I'm bound to say it but I do think the place has produced and produced well. I would stand our kids up against anybody's.

"When you see them at under-20s against Dundee United's kids and all others they are better, or at least no worse. Look at the Dundee United scenario. They could win a game, lose a game, draw one, win one, lose two, that just doesn't happen at Rangers [without creating a fuss].

"It's exactly the same for Celtic. They have struggled to put young players into the team but their budget is high enough that they don't have to. In some respects, Dundee United and others are forced to do it. When you see Murray Park you couldn't fail to be impressed with it but it is only grass, goalposts and a building. It's no more than that. Whether it is successful is down to the people inside."

Whether Sinclair's list is long enough, or whether Rangers should have had more to show for their six-figure annual investment in youth development, is open to debate. But he isn't the only evangelist for Murray Park. The place was Dick Advocaat's brainchild and came into operation when he was in charge, before subsequently benefiting managers Alex McLeish, Paul Le Guen, Walter Smith and Ally McCoist.

"You have to say Murray Park has had its fair share of very good young players," said McLeish. "It deserves a bit of credit for the players it has produced and for the scouts who spotted them in the first place. At first people thought 'the building has been put in place, let's see the majesty coming out of it over the next couple of years'. That just doesn't happen easily. It takes time. When Alex Ferguson went to Manchester United he had to wait a while and suddenly he had the class of '92. It's not about judging it right away, it's about letting things develop before we can make assessments.

"The first time I walked into Rangers and I was at Murray Park, my opening gambit to the players was 'look guys, you have magnificent facilities here, you really don't know how lucky you are, and there are probably a few of you here who have experienced really poor training facilities in the past. For all you other young guys born into this, your challenge is to not waste a single minute of your football career, make the most of these facilities'.

"They were facilities to die for. I explained to them about my previous training on public parks, with goose shit, dog shit everywhere. That was a fact. We would have killed for the sort of facilities they have at Murray Park."

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