THE critics are clearing their throats. Here we go again, they will say. What do you know, fresh from being eliminated somewhat embarrassingly from the running for automatic qualification for Euro 2020 – we still have a play-off semi-final up our sleeves in March – the SFA are conducting ANOTHER review into youth development in Scotland.

Cue copious mentions of the ill-fated attempts of the past, including Rinus Michels and his Think Tank, the illustrious Dutchman who co-founded total football with Johan Cruyff, and Henry McLeish’s more recent review in 2010. While pilot schemes were under way before then, the McLeish report gave its full endorsement to Scotland’s network of seven performance schools, which at an annual spend of £700,000, could soon be about to find themselves in the firing line.

The truth is more complex than that. Because in truth, this move has been in the pipeline for ages, at least since the balance of the SFA’s seven-man board changed in the spring with Rod Petrie moving to president and Mike Mulraney coming in as vice president. How to streamline and improve youth development in this country was one of the key topics raised at a recent meeting of the Professional Game Board, conducted well before our Group I elimination was sealed.

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It has long been a contention of what was once called a ‘modernising’ faction on the board that the SFA are attempting to do too much with their £38m turnover. They think they should focus on doing less better.

While relations between the SPFL and the SFA on Hampden’s sixth floor are far more cordial these days than they once were, there has been a consistent feeling amongst many clubs that the SFA shouldn’t be lecturing them on how to develop their young players, considering it is they who do the hard yards in their academies across the land. Now well represented on the SFA main board and in a position to do something about it, this is the background to the latest root-and-branch review into the SFA’s youth development policies.

The first thing that should be stated is that the process to become more efficient at youth level is a noble one. Too many of the talented young players we do have still go missing between the age of 17 and 20.

We can hardly claim to be satisfied with a nationwide talent spotting and development scheme which has provided national team manager Steve Clarke with a shortage in the striking position and at central defence, not to mention one functioning international right back in Stephen O’Donnell. The Kilmarnock man is an honest player and in the squad on merit but surely there has to be more competition there.

But while it is one thing to give the clubs more autonomy, another question is whether they can be trusted to do the right thing without regulation. Where once the SPFL had quotas for under-age players in first teams and matchday squads, no such rules are now in place. Clubs, by their nature self-interested. They have no obligation to play them.

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For all that sides like Motherwell and Hamilton should be commended for making blooding young players part of their modus operandi in recent years, it is a fairly safe bet that Mikey Johnston will be the only Scottish Under-21 player to get regular game time at either Celtic or Rangers, two sides going hell for leather to try to capture the league. It is one thing collecting the best young players in the land, quite another getting them into your first team. Celtic may have blooded the likes of Kieran Tierney and developed the likes of Callum McGregor, but much of the credit for that must go to Ronny Deila and an era where the club exerted a near total domestic dominance.

That is where the loan system comes in, so the theory goes. But this is another area which is under the SFA microscope. The feeling is that big clubs often prefer to hoard their very best players in case a first team injury comes along rather than send them out into the wild. Consequently, that crucial development phase can often be lost.

The reserve league certainly doesn't seem to be the answer - currently limping along with ten teams, Rangers, Celtic, Hibs and Aberdeen having taken the decision that their interests are best served out of it.

As for the performance schools, their worth may only just be coming to fruition, with star pupils such as Billy Gilmour and Harry Cochrane reaching maturity. Of course, they are imperfect. With only seven to cover the whole of Scotland, vast areas of the country’s geography are well nigh untouchable. Kids aged 12 can be asked to get up at 6am to travel an hour to and from school, and are knackered by the time they get to train with their pro youth academies at night. With year as little as a handful of kids, much of the playing time is against the pupils in older years. But as difficult as the logistics might be, I still feel young players generally prosper if you can build sport into their daily routines. Quite apart from the fact that scrapping them would cause the upheaval of uprooting kids from their schools, are they really the problem?

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There are no easy answers here. But a start would be taking a page out of Belgium’s book. Let’s encourage children to work more on technique and give them appropriate facilities to do so. Let’s regulate in a way that encourages them to get more game time during those crucial years between 16 and 20.

Let’s not be afraid to rip up the blueprint if things aren’t working. Hell, why not even ask Steve Clarke for his ideas, given he is the man at the sharp end of all this. But let’s make sure we are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater while we do so.