SCOTTISH football is in the midst of its own version of the McCarthy trials. Hamilton Accies midfielder James McCarthy has spent the past few weeks on three-day trial periods at first Liverpool then Reading, with two six-figure fees reportedly lodged for his services.

As yet neither have been accepted, nor rejected. In fact, having made his debut in September at the age of 15, and scored his first senior goal last weekend aged just 16 years and 50 days - the entire transfer saga seems to be proceeding more slowly than the rest of the player's career.

Hamilton regard Reading as an appropriate club for the youngster to continue his development, but having met his idol Steven Gerrard whilst at the Merseyside club's Melwood training ground, the player himself may have different ideas. "At Liverpool, I was in training with the reserves but I played a game on the Sunday where I was in with some of the guys from the first team, Luis Garcia, Robbie Fowler and Peter Crouch for instance," McCarthy told the Sunday Herald.

"They were all great to me but Stevie Gerrard was the best probably - he was just asking where I was from, sitting next to me and talking away to me. I have always watched a lot of English football as well as Scottish, and Gerrard is my idol so it was great to spend some time with him. But I really enjoyed training with the first team at Reading as well and the gaffer is looking after me really well anyway."

On the face of it, McCarthy and David Templeton - another youngster who made his SFL debut at 16 prior to this week's £30,000 switch from Stenhousemuir to Hearts - and even Livingston's reported Barcelona target Robert Snodgrass, are at the vanguard of a new wave of prodigious teenage talent emerging from the Scottish Football League, but what is behind this phenomenon, and is it as straightforward as it appears?

Let's get the caveats in first. First of all, it is worth remembering that selected players have always been early starters. Diego Maradona was in the Argentinos Juniors first team at the age of 14 and it didn't do him too much harm; Wayne Rooney, James Milner and Cesc Fabregas all had Premiership appearances on their cvs prior to their 17th birthday. As for Scottish examples, Paul Lambert and Burton O'Brien at St Mirren were both playing in the top team as 16-year-olds.

Neither does everyone have exactly the same glowing reference about McCarthy's talents as those of his club boss Billy Reid and his suitors down south. The box-to-box midfielder did, after all, manage to escape the clutches of the pro-youth teams at both Livingston and Celtic - the youngster from St Margaret Mary's school and Castlemilk Boys club departing the Parkhead club's set-up when "they were saying you're a great player and we would love to take you on but we have too many in our pool'."

A similar situation also pertains at international level. Eyebrows were raised when the Glasgow-born McCarthy recently pledged his future to the Republic of Ireland national team, with Eire under-17 coach Sean McCaffrey having indicated that the player will feature in his squad for the friendly against Italy on January 23.

But it wasn't as if Scotland didn't have the opportunity. Youth supremo Archie Knox has viewed the player twice, and youth coach Ross Mathie at least half a dozen times, without him being called up to represent the country of his birth. "We knew of James last season and we've had him watched a number of times, but like most managerial decisions it is all a matter of opinions," Mathie said.

The player's rationale is simple enough. He is fulfilling a vow to his grandfather, Paddy Coyle, who died a couple of months ago. "My gran and grandad were Irish," McCarthy said. "My grandad always wanted me to play for Ireland, and he has just passed away, so I decided that I was going to play for Ireland in his honour. Scotland were trying to mess me about. They said they were coming to my game each week then they didn't turn up."

Whatever the varying opinions on the player's ability, the SFL landscape is a different place these days. With most clubs struggling for cash due to the dwindling sponsorship monies, and the SFA's painstaking work on improving the standard of youth coaching beginning to bear fruit, it is an increasingly cost-effective option to invest in your youth policy and fill your squad with the products. It is worth noting that McCarthy has also been the beneficiary of a not inconsiderable series of injuries at the Lanarkshire club.

Hamilton finished last weekend's Scottish Cup defeat to Livingston with an average age of 18 (they had two 16-year-olds and two 17-year-olds playing), and by this weekend their tally of 19 unavailable players was enough to convince the SFA to call off yesterday's proposed league encounter with Ross County.

"If you look at some clubs it is experienced pros all the way, they don't even play young boys, but that is not the case at this club," Reid said. "James has probably benefited in terms of the injury situation but there are four or five in on merit now and they would play regardless of the injury situation.

"The Ireland thing disappointed me. I had mentioned James' name to Scotland a couple of times, and I can't believe that no-one ever made a concerted attempt to take him into the Scotland set-up."

Somewhat ironically, Hamilton's prospective opponents yesterday boast another formidable youth set-up. Ross County's under-19 side, under the experienced eye of director of football George Adams, are currently well clear at the top of the SFL Under-19 league, and beat a Hamilton side featuring McCarthy in the Scottish Youth Cup recently.

Seventeen-year-old Daniel Moore and Gary MacKay-Steven are a couple of youngsters that are also turning heads in the Premiership down south. "I think clubs are being forced to go like that because of the financial restrictions that are in place in the first, second and third divisions just now," Adams told the Sunday Herald.

"We have got three boys Premiership clubs have already spoken about, but we are trying to make them better players for Ross County football club rather than just moving them on at 16 years of age.

"But I don't think all these players are better than years gone by. You will always get one-offs, but Rangers, Celtic, Hibs and Hearts have already all got very good young players at young age levels, it it whether the manager is prepared to throw them on. Doing it in the SPL, as compared to the SFL, is a big, big difference."