11 April 2013

Faith in the Youth

by Jonny McFarlane | Guest Contributor

When new Scotland manager Gordon Strachan announced his latest Scotland squad, Dick Advocaat would be entitled to view the list of names with some satisfaction. 

As the key architect behind Murray Park’s inception it was his vision to see the training ground as a keystone in both Rangers and, as a further consequence, Scotland’s playing future. 

The inclusion of five Ibrox-bred stars in the form of Allan McGregor, Alan Hutton, Charlie Adam, Chris Burke and Ross McCormack stand as proof that the training ground has delivered. Sadly, due to a combination of factors, these players are now at other clubs, but their success is a testament to Advocaat’s vision. 

The fact that Rangers let Adam, Burke and McCormack leave Ibrox for a combined fee of £500,000 speaks to a potential problem with how talent has been nurtured to its full potential at first team level. Given the new crop of talented youngsters bursting into the starting 11, it’s imperative that lessons have been learned from the past and a better approach is adopted to maximise player development. 

Adam was arguably the most talented of all the Murray Park graduates and although not many would dispute that he had his moments in a Rangers jersey, a large proportion of the fans found him a very frustrating figure. A lad with the ability to play a 70-yard World Cup pass one minute and give the ball straight to the opposition from five yards the next, it is completely understandable that passionate supporters might occasionally voice a grumble about inconsistency. 

Perhaps though, it’s endemic of a lack of understanding amongst our support about how good young players grow. After all, for a long time in the 80’s and 90’s we didn’t really see many youngsters come in and establish themselves over the long term. The kids in the 9-in-a-row era like Steven Pressley or Gary McSwegan would have limited first team involvement, mostly during an injury crisis, then leave for pastures new. 

The quality at the club was of a very high level and most of the players we watched every week were established internationalists. Money was everywhere and youngsters didn’t get opportunities so it’s hardly surprising that our fans have a lower tolerance level to the kind of mistakes your average academy kid makes in his first few seasons. 

Most managers and coaches talk about young players and the difficulty in finding consistency over a sustained period. Only the absolute top drawer stars like a Barry Ferguson or an Ian Durrant seem to be able to do that at 19 or 20. At other clubs, fans are used to seeing youngsters fill various positions every week, and perhaps have a better appreciation of how a player improves his game. 

At Rangers, you have to perform like a man from the start; it’s very much sink or swim, Ibrox can be unforgiving. Remember how Alan Hutton was treated before Walter Smith took over? Some players, like Hutton or even Ally McCoist, recover from early setbacks and crowd disapproval to become stronger. They use the disenchantment as a spur to drive the fires of ambition and that’s a fantastic tribute to their drive and personality, but not everyone made of that sort of stuff.

Some youngsters need patience to ever truly shine. At a club like St. Johnstone you can build your confidence without undue pressure and expectation over the course of a season. Some might argue this is because the Perth Saints are a provincial club with no pressure while Rangers are a massive institution, but other huge clubs have had better records over the last few years. 

I look at huge clubs like Barcelona or Manchester United where there has been a 15 or 20 year period where youth players have been actively introduced as part of the footballing culture. At Manchester United the club legends seem to be home grown stars more often, for every Eric Cantona there are three that burst through from the youth system like Paul Scholes, Bobby Charlton or Ryan Giggs. 

At Rangers, especially since the Murray era, our best have most often been signings from other clubs. Of the 11 that was picked as the greatest ever Rangers team, only Sandy Jardine and John Greig came through the club’s youth system.

Leaving aside the obvious reasons that saw promising youngsters like Rhys McCabe, Jamie Ness and Gregg Wylde leave the club last summer, the club still has a promising crop of youngsters that have added much to the first team this season. It’s imperative to the careers of these young men that we give them our confidence and support from the stands. They should feel empowered to try things off the cuff, safe in the knowledge that the power of the fans is behind them in encouragement. 

It’s not going to come off every time but they will get better and will learn more every week if Ally McCoist and his coaching staff are doing their jobs correctly. They need patience and support. As part of the rebuilding of the club, its right that we put faith in Murray Park. It has produced many good players since it opened and will continue to do so. The club must put youth development at the heart of its ethos and so should the fans.