THE football food chain can be frustrating for fans. While they will commend their own clubs for picking up talent from clubs further down the ladder, supporters will often be angered by bigger fish circling their own ‘starlets’, to use a term beloved of this profession.

This has become especially true in recent years it seems, as a variety of factors have led to clubs looking to secure promising players at ever younger ages. What has heightened the frustration of fans though from top to bottom is that very often, they don’t even get to see the brightest prospects from their academies pull on the jersey at first-team level before a bigger club has lured them away.

It happened to Rangers with Billy Gilmour, who was snapped up by Chelsea at just 15. It happened to Celtic with Liam Morrison, who moved to Bayern Munich at 16. And it is happening now to smaller Scottish clubs as both of Glasgow’s big two look to hoover up the very best of young Scottish talent.

Just this week, both Celtic and Rangers were credited with an interest in 16-year-old Motherwell prospect Bailey Rice. In the end, he left the Fir Park club yesterday after seven years in their system to continue his development journey at Ibrox.

The Steelmen have enjoyed a great reputation over the years for producing their own players, and have profited either financially, on the park, or in both areas through the rearing of talents such as David Turnbull and Allan Campbell.

But as well as that pair have done, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Rice is making the same move that Jake Hastie did a few years ago, and it has to be hoped for his sake that he doesn’t continue to follow in Hastie’s footsteps all the way to Hartlepool United, where the once promising winger is now hoping to reignite his faltering career after failing to make the grade at Rangers.

At least Motherwell got a few months out of Hastie though before he cashed in his chips. Could it be that the days of smaller clubs getting perhaps a couple of seasons out of the cream of their young crop before they rise to the top are over?

They have already lost out on young Stuart McKinstry, who Leeds United snaffled from the Fir Park academy a couple of years ago, and several others have gone south too. Despite their best efforts, Rice has also moved on before Graham Alexander got the chance to utilise him.

Rangers have been especially busy over the past few days in their recruitment activity at this age level, also snapping up young Cammy Cooper from Partick Thistle and winger Kieron Willox from Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

The tale of the Old Firm clubs targeting the best of Scottish talent from elsewhere is as old as time, but why do they suddenly now appear to be shifting their focus to ever younger players?

Well, aside from the fact it makes business sense to identify talent before they potentially become multi-million pound assets, both Celtic and Rangers now have B teams to fill, of course.

They must also have at least four club trained players and four association trained players in their first-team squads to meet the UEFA quota for participation in European competition, so it follows that they would want those players to be more than simply shirt-fillers who are there to tick those boxes.

But while it may make sense for the bigger clubs, does it make sense for players to be making these moves so early in their careers?

You can’t really blame them, in truth. Even at such a young age, they will be able to command wages that most of us hugely older and infinitely less talented plebs could only dream of. And while they may only be starting out on their football careers proper, they still have a relatively fleeting period in which to maximise their earnings.

The problem is though, they have an even more limited window in which to maximise their potential, and these formative experiences in football will have a massive impact on the level they can ultimately achieve.

These players will of course back themselves that they can be part of the infinitesimal percentage that actually make the breakthrough into the first teams at these big clubs, but I wonder if getting experience of men’s football by playing for Celtic or Rangers in the Lowland League is really a better grounding than doing so as part of the Motherwell, Inverness or Partick Thistle first teams?

An interesting question is whether a player is further away from the Celtic or Rangers first team if they are in their B team at the age of 19, or if they are excelling at a higher level elsewhere?

Many smaller clubs in Scotland have built their business models around bringing young players through to eventually sell them on, giving them opportunities in the first team earlier than they may get elsewhere and then using the money they made to invest in the next generation of talent. The very model that worked out so well with Turnbull, when he made his move to Celtic.

The food chain appears to be evolving though. Whether that is good news for young players, remains to be seen. But the further down it you are as a club, the harder it seems to be getting to survive.