03 November 2015

Building an optimal talent environment can only be good for Rangers

by Alex Oliver | Contributor

As you can probably guess from the title, I definitely categorise myself in the nurture camp in the nature vs nurture debate for talent development in a sporting context. To write someone off before you have even put them through a training programme is simply ignorant. 

For example, the idea of a ‘Jamaican sprint gene’ or a ‘Kenyan distance running gene’ falls apart when the same gene is highlighted in tens of millions of other people around the globe.

Thus, there must be something special about their training environments.

As Mark Warburton begins to revolutionise the entire football club, one such area he is addressing is the academy and what goes in to produce Rangers’ stars of tomorrow. Simply put; there is no way to predict which youths will go on to be the best. For example, only a small percentage of Olympic champions show ‘potential’ to ‘expert coaches’ at the age of 12. 

This also highlights the fact we’re all pretty rubbish at identifying potential talent. But let's put that to one side. If an optimal environment for talent development is created there is a higher chance that more youngsters will develop into expert performers as their careers begin to blossom.

Improving a talent development environment is something which will be worked on over time; it’s something which requires patience from fans, which isn’t exactly prevalent within football! But at a club which aims to produce its own players for the first team it is integral. And slowly, and surely, it will be forthcoming with results. At the talent development stage at youth level results are more
than simply scoring more times than the opposition. 

Whilst the score in games plays a part and it’s important to have a competitive edge, the crux of the issue is to create a support network conducive of developing high level performers. By this I mean players who can effectively make the transition from youths to the senior level.

A foreign feeder team may seem like the answer to problems for several teams - but if a certain club is consistently producing a high number of high quality footballers a better idea is to look at the club and ask questions such as: ‘What can we learn?’ and ‘what would it take for this be implemented at our club?’

Craig Mulholland
Interestingly, the head of youth Craig Mulholland spent some of the close season at various academies in England observing various training methods. Basic observations here alert us to it being an avenue the club appear to be looking at, which is encouraging. Moreover, given Mark Warburton’s integral involvement in the NextGen series, he has worked with some of the best youth academies across Europe. 

Warburton has subsequently commented in numerous interviews that his observations have seen an adoption of their methods for implementation at his own club. A pathway leading to an effective environment.

It is no secret certain countries have a habit of producing high quality footballers, but this isn’t down to the gene pool. I’d say it’s na├»ve to say so. It can simply be attributed to the training environment created. At a basic level, what has been invested in will come into fruition. If we look at this on the
national stage, the meteoric rise of Iceland is the perfect example of what investment in football
infrastructure can achieve.

Iceland has a population of 320,000. Yes, three hundred and twenty thousand. That’s almost 200,000 less than that of Edinburgh (490,000). Iceland began to raise a few eyebrows in the qualification stages for the 2014 World Cup and were 90 minutes away from Brazil. However this disappointment was short lived and nearly two years on Iceland have qualified for their first ever tournament - and in doing so became the smallest ever country to achieve this remarkable feat.

The seeds of this success were sewn some time ago, relatively speaking, as we’re now seeing it come into fruition with a group of players dubbed a ‘golden generation’. Heavy investment was put into the country's grassroots… or rather plastic roots given that nearly all of the pitches are plastic for obvious reasons! The tiny country boasts 20 full-sized all weather pitches and over 100 all-weather smaller pitches for children to train. 

Alongside the improvement of basic facilities has been an improvement in coaching. It has one of the highest UEFA certified coaches per population head (Edwards & Percy, 2015). This has coincided with the promotion of the game in general. 

In short; First class facilities + high quality coaching = optimal talent development environment.

As we look slightly closer to home, Scotland, who have yet again have missed out on another international tournament, could learn a lot from their Icelandic counterparts. There is not a quick fix; it is a long and arduous process but acting sooner, rather than later will prevent future generations of Scottish footballers being labelled ‘failures’. I was encouraged by the messages conveyed in a recent SFA coaching course. 

Providing that all coaches stick to these guidelines we’ll be in an okay place. But you can ask the question are there enough football pitches for our youngsters? Or rather are there enough affordable pitches for developing our youngsters?

Back at Rangers, and there are encouraging signs from Mark Warburton and Craig Mulholland who appear to be building a high quality training environment, and given recent personnel appointments the individuals who will help deliver this environment are in place. Importantly, a club-wide philosophy is being ingrained and this appears to have a focus on producing technical ability in players - something done in Iceland - as we can see with so many of their players holding their own in Europe’s top leagues. 

In time, this will in time produce results in the sense that Auchenhowie will consistently produce players capable of playing in the first team. Rangers are currently in a wonderful position. World class facilities and first class coaches mean it really is only a matter of time before the talent is being consistently produced.

With this in mind, Rangers may well have to be the trailblazers in Scottish football, but it is something that is desperately needed if the Scottish national team is to compete in a major international tournament again.