LIFTED the French-language paper Le Soir in a café in Brussels the other day. Amid the latest despatches from Michel Barnier et al over Brexit I was slightly taken aback to find that they still had room for articles like the one I discovered on page two of their supplement.

The headline read: ‘Une bien trop longue disette pour le foot Ecossais’ [‘It has been too long for Scottish football’]. Now “ten tournoi sans Tartan Army’, the reasons behind our demise as a nation of footballing renown were all here for the good people of Brussels to dissect over their morning café and croissants. There was a contribution from none other than John Collins, still remembered fondly in these parts as a former manager of Charleroi.

According to Le Soir, globalisation, and the fact that only 47% of players in the Ladbrokes Premiership are Scottish, compared to 97% in our heyday in 1986, was part of it. So too was the fact that football in general has become less physical, more quick and technical, hereby robbing the Scottish player of one of his unique selling points.


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“The main reason for our downgrade is simply because we do not have enough coaches who focus on technique and talent on the ground,” was Collins’ withering assessment. Our coaches, he added, might possess Uefa licences but they don’t have a precise plan to develop their players.

The point, of course, is that none of this is remotely new. Articles like this have been appearing in some form for at least a decade. But it isn’t good enough any more to lament the loss of the tanner ba’ player or bang on about the teacher’s strike in the 1980s.

if ever there is an example of what can be achieved by joined up thinking then surely it is Belgium. Some would argue that it isn’t fair to measure ourselves against the ‘golden generation’ of a nation which has twice the population we have to call upon but instead of going over where Scotland has gone wrong, how about looking at what Belgium have got so right?

Much like we did with Rinus Michels’ think tank then Henry McLeish’s review of football, Belgium used the embarrassment of failing to qualify from the group at a home Euros to overhaul their practices. You may recognise some of these components because Scotland and others have tried to copy them, but it is fair to say their blueprint has been rather more successful than ours.

The first principle was that a nation of only 11 million people couldn’t afford the natural wastage of bigger nations. After years of studious research, technical director Michael Sablon decreed that 4-3-3 was the best formation to develop his players, regardless of whether it always got them the best results on matchdays. He went out to clubs and schools to encourage all youth coaches to play that way too but let’s just say his ideas weren’t universally popular. “It wasn’t easy,” Sablon has said. “I was personally attacked in the press and by people in the Belgium federation.”


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Special squads were created for players born in the latter half of a year group, boys who might previously have been overwhelmed by bigger, stronger peers. And once players stepped up an age group, it became a rule that they weren’t allowed to move back. Youth results weren’t recorded – they aren’t in Scotland either – with the top players receiving additional training time at a series of eight special academies, akin you could say to the SFA’s performance schools.

So what about Belgium’s 34 pro clubs, spread out across two divisions? The top league, sponsored by beer brand Jupiler, has 16 teams. At the last count, 61% of its 440 players came from abroad. But that doesn’t meant there isn’t serious buy-in across the board when it comes to youth development.

Anderlecht are the case in point – while they are at pains to point out they don’t slavishly follow every nudge from the national association – they have played a significant role in the development of the likes of Vincent Kompany, Romelu Lukaku and Youri Tielemans. They finished back in sixth this year, Genk the champions in a league which incorporates a novel play-off system for the title itself.

Compare that to the lop sided nature of league play in our country, and you see that Scottish football still has a long way to go. In fact, what commonality of purpose there has been about developing players could be fracturing, with clubs withdrawing from reserve leagues and sides such as Falkirk pulling the plug on their much-vaunted academy. Greg Taylor on Tuesday night was merely the latest proof that there are good players in the Scottish league, guys who can step up and do a job at international level.

But more, much more, needs to be done – because that natural wastage the Belgians once spoke of is still everywhere. It would be nice to think that somewhere down the line you could pick up a paper in a foreign country and read an article on how everyone had dropped their petty fiefdoms, got their heads together, and why everything has gone right with Scottish football for a change.