A GENUINE under-23 friendly against Panama last night would have been a welcome and progressive development. It’s obvious to anyone with functioning brain cells that there needs to be a bridge to help young players make the transition from under-19 football to senior teams.

The very best, such as Erin Cuthbert who captained last night’s side at the age of 24, don’t need it. Kim Little was just 16 when she played her first five games for Scotland. But for the majority, a vehicle to help them progress internationally is essential, as happens in men’s football at under-21 level.

Which is why the introduction of a national under-23s programme was a key target in the Scottish FA’s strategy for girls’ and women’s football. It was published in July last year, but in the intervening 16 months there has been no discernible movement.

Until Thursday. Some 52 hours before last night’s game it was unexpectedly announced on social media that the Panama fixture would not – as everyone outside the Scotland camp had been led to believe – be a full international friendly, but an under-23 one.

How very convenient. In the accompanying explanation, Pedro Martinez Losa described it as “a wonderful opportunity to implement this [strategy] objective for the first time”.

Why, then, was there no word of it being an under-23 international when the squad was announced nine days earlier? Somewhat remarkably, the official line is that it had always been the intention for Panama to be an under-23 game – but as the necessary documentation between the two teams hadn’t been completed they didn’t want to risk it being unable to happen.

The reality is that last night’s team was not an under-23 one, but a hybrid of young players and experienced internationalists. The SFA announcement on Thursday stated: “In line with UEFA rules, both sides will be allowed to field five players over the age of 23.”

Given that permitting so many senior players negates the whole purpose of having an under-23 team, I contacted UEFA to ask if the five-player rule was correct. Instead of confirming it, a spokesperson responded: “This has nothing to do with UEFA. We refer you to the SFA.”

Last night’s starting side had three players under 23, another three who are aged 23, and five over-age players. Rangers winger Brogan Hay (23), was the only starter who has not been capped at senior level, while Sam Kerr (also 23) is already an established national-team player.

If it had always been the intention for last night’s

game to be an age-group one, there was an obvious opportunity to draft in two more young players in when Lucy Graham and Christy Grimshaw dropped out. Instead, long-standing squad members Chloe Arthur and Christie Murray were recalled.

There are some who believe it didn’t matter how last night’s team was designated, and what was important was young players getting international experience. That’s a valid point of view, but equally these young players could still have been played against a side 32 places lower in the FIFA rankings and would have had been awarded caps had the game been, as we all expected, an international friendly.

Unfortunately the episode smacks of expediency, or a box-ticking exercise as many have described it. To describe the 2-0 win, no matter how well intended, as implementing the strategy objective is simply not credible and everybody knows it.

IN fairness to the SFA,

it is not easy to arrange genuine under-23 games. Only a very few European countries play semi-regular friendlies, and they are mostly the elite footballing nations. Yet this was well known when the strategy objective was published.

The answer is for UEFA to introduce competitive matches, but although the SFA had been hopeful this would happen next year, the European governing body told me it won’t.

However, far from last night being the first ever under-23 side, as was claimed by the SFA on Thursday and dutifully repeated by media outlets who don’t invest in fact-checking, Scotland played four competitive games in 2008.

These were in the eight-nation Nordic Tournament held in Sweden and some familiar names were in the squad. They included Hibernian’s Joelle Murray and Frankie Brown, as well as Glasgow City’s Emma Fernon  (now Black), Suzanne Lappin and Megan Sneddon (now Burns), who was captain and went on to become one of Scotland’s best ever midfielders.

The head coach was Anna Signeul’s assistant Ann-Helen Grahm. Scotland lost all four games without scoring a goal, but it was an invaluable experience in a high quality tournament which also involved the USA, England, Germany, Switzerland and the Nordic nations.