Anything Belgium, Costa Rica and Uruguay can do…

This summer’s FIFA World Cup has already proven to be one of the best ever.

After witnessing so many exciting games, goals, drama and fantastic team achievements, I know it will live in my memory forever – and we’re only half way through!

I’ve personally worked with eight players currently featuring for the Netherlands and Belgium in the quarter-finals and it’s a nice feeling to watch them perform at the highest level.

Belgium started their elite player strategy back in 2000 and now have a very strong squad of players.

It’s also interesting to note that most of their squad left Belgium as youngsters to improve their development elsewhere in Europe.

It was therefore great to see Ryan Gauld seal an exciting move to Sporting Club de Portugal earlier this week.

As an 18-year-old, you need to improve yourself every day and I think it’s great that he will be training and playing for a club with a long history of developing world class players.

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We have also seen other young Scottish players move to develop their career.

Jay Fulton recently made his English Premier League debut for Swansea City whilst Ryan Fraser has played a lot of football for Bournemouth in the English Championship.

Matthew Kennedy spent some time on loan at Tranmere Rovers and MK Dons and will now push for a place in the first-team squad at Everton and the same can be said of Jack Grimmer of Fulham, who picked up some game time on loan at Port Vale.

There were also encouraging signs at club level in Scotland with more than 75 players making their first-team debut last season.

Liam Henderson of Celtic, Andrew Robertson from Dundee United and Aberdeen’s Cammy Smith are just three examples of young players now playing at the top clubs in the Scottish Premiership.

It’s all about game time and individual development.

It was pleasing to see the clubs in Scotland have reacted very positively to a recent survey conducted by the Scottish FA with regards to our performance strategy.

This year, the boys’ under-17s and the girls’ under-17s and under-19s all qualified for their respective UEFA European Championship finals with the boys’ under-17s reaching the semi-finals of the competition for the first time ever in May.

The boys’ under-16 squad also won the Sky Sports Victory Shield last year – the first outright win for Scotland in 15 years.

These are encouraging signs but we are confident we are on the right path with our strategy.

For now, I am very much looking forward to the quarter-finals of the World Cup getting under way with a special interest in the Netherlands who face Costa Rica, a country with only four million people and their star player Brian Ruiz from PSV Eindhoven.

Small countries, comparable in size to Scotland, like Costa Rica, Switzerland and Uruguay have done themselves proud at the finals and this is hugely encouraging for Gordon Strachan and his team to believe that qualification for EURO 2016 and the FIFA World Cup in 2018 is possible.

We’ve had two days now without any World Cup matches and I can’t wait to switch my telly back on this evening!

Reaching UEFA Under-17 Finals a step in the right direction

It’s been a terrific week for everyone involved with the Scotland Under-17 team, after they achieved qualification to this summer’s UEFA European Under-17 Championship Finals in Malta in May. To do this whilst also remaining unbeaten during the entire qualification process is something that the players and staff can be extremely proud of.

To be one of just seven of the European countries to qualify along with hosts Malta is a terrific achievement but, as I stated after the win against Belgium that guaranteed a place in the finals, it is a small step towards what are aiming to achieve with the Scottish FA’s performance strategy, Scotland United: A 2020 Vision.

The players should be proud of their performances and results in the Elite Round and added to the Sky Sports Victory Shield – which Scotland won for the first time in 15 years, in December – we should be cautiously optimistic.

Craig Wighton (9) is mobbed by his team mates after scoring Scotland's second goal of the game.   Copyright snspix.com

Craig Wighton (9) is mobbed by his team mates after scoring Scotland’s second goal against Bosnia-Herzegovina. Copyright snspix.com

These recent successes are obviously welcoming, but the success of the strategy will be when, the first generation of players from the seven performance school begin appearing for the youth national teams. Some of the talent emerging from the schools is extremely encouraging.

As for the boys who have just defeated three very good sides in Belgium, Romania and Bosnia-Herzegovina, we’ll know if the strategy has been successful if they are knocking on Gordon Strachan’s door over the next couple of years. Qualifying for the finals this summer is a bonus, but we need to see our youth national teams qualifying for Elite Rounds and finals on a regular basis, as tournament experience is invaluable.

What we are seeing is the benefit of our best young players playing more international matches than before with some of the under-17 squad having already played for Scotland’s youth teams more than 15 times before last week’s elite round.  This is an integral part of our performance strategy; by playing against quality opposition from across Europe and beyond on a regular basis. Victories like Wednesday’s win over a talented Belgium side, which required the team to comeback from going behind, are a testament to the strategy’s impact.

Talent ID is also an important factor, with scouts identifying the best young Scottish talent from an early age.

Credit must be given to all the players who wore the blue (and, on one occasion, pink) jersey for their country during both the qualifiers and the elite round. To win five out of the six matches and remain unbeaten is an achievement that cannot be understated, and the players deserve the praise that they’ve received in the national media.

Scot Gemmill, Gareth Evans, Colin Stewart and Andy Gould, along with all the other backroom staff, have been integral to the successes of the past week and I would also like to place on record my thanks to the clubs for their support and commitment to the development of these talented young players. I would also like to thank Scott Booth for his efforts with the squad prior to accepting the manager’s position at Stenhousemuir.

The three victories in the Elite Round were the product of intense preparation, coaching and motivation and we are confident Ricky Sbragia’s under-19 squad can repeat the success of the under-17s and qualify for their finals in Hungary this summer.

We find out who will be in our group at the finals next week at the draw in Valletta, the capital of Malta. Regardless of who we get, I’m sure that we will prove why this age group deserves to be amongst Europe’s elite this summer, and it is our intention to make a habit of attending major finals.

 

Clubs’ Under-20:20 vision can only help players find pathway to the top

I am delighted the SPFL chairmen and chief executives elected to continue with the Under-20 League at their meeting last week.

In our many discussions with the clubs’ Heads of Youth the introduction of the Under-20s has been a hugely positive step forward in our collective efforts to give the most talented young players the best pathway to first-team football as possible.

With the stipulations of a floodlit stadium and standardised kick-off slots to attract supporters, it has given those on the brink of first-team football extra incentive and motivation to take that all important next step.

Debate is always healthy and while one or two clubs had contemplated reverting back to a reserve league, perhaps on the advice of first-team managers, I believe the decision to show ongoing support for the Under-20s format will be vindicated.

I am grateful to the clubs for listening to their Heads of Youth and seeing the benefit of preserving the current format, albeit with the scope to field some over-age players should the first-team managers require the flexibility.

I cannot stress enough the importance of the Under-20 League format to our Best v Best philosophy during the final step before first-team football. In the last 18 months, 70 players have progressed from Under-20s into the first teams of their clubs.

We have seen some excellent examples of talented young players come to prominence this season, not least Andrew Robertson, who completed a remarkable year when he made his full Scotland debut in the 1-0 victory against Poland. Andrew was a stand-out performer for Queen’s Park in League Two and is now a regular first-team starter for Jackie McNamara at Dundee United.

John McGinn is another 19-year-old who has used the under-20s as a springboard to first-team prominence at St Mirren. He has been involved in Billy Stark’s under-21 national team and recently attributed his elevation to the mentoring of Lee Mair, now with Partick Thistle, during his time in the under-20s.

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There are plenty examples that justify the status quo. I am keen that Scottish football gives itself every opportunity to continue the progress it has made. While I can understand the temptation to have a reserve league, history shows that often it can become a resting home for older players who are no longer part of the first-team plans, or worse still be used to increase first-team squad numbers and look beyond our own young players by importing more experienced players.

There is a feelgood factor in Scottish football after a memorable week for our national teams. Gordon Strachan and his players have given us all encouragement and enthusiasm with the result in Poland, taking the A squad’s unbeaten run to five matches. Likewise, Anna Signeul’s women’s A squad have made a terrific start to their Cyprus Cup campaign with a draw against France and a victory against my native Netherlands. Victory against Australia will further build their confidence ahead of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers resuming.

Our under-21s were a matter of moments away from a win against Hungary but it is worth noting they did so with a squad that was on average two years younger than their opponents, while Ricky Sbragia’s under-19s recovered excellently against Switzerland to win 4-2.

Our Under-17s will participate later this month in an Elite Round in Scotland to qualify for the UEFA Euro Under-17 Finals in May.

I am hugely encouraged by the progress we are making domestically and in our international programme. Last week’s decision to reiterate faith in the Under-20s League will enable us to continue to develop our relationships with the Heads of Youth to provide a pipeline of talent that will be of benefit to the clubs, first-team managers and our national teams for years to come.

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Gordon Strachan flying the flag for Scotland’s performance potential

Possibility. It is the word that best describes the events that have counter-balanced the disappointment of not reaching the FIFA World Cup finals in Brazil.

It says a lot for the enduring optimism and enthusiasm of the Scotland supporters that the start of the UEFA European Championship campaign cannot come quick enough.

Tuesday’s 2-0 victory against Croatia ensured a respectable final placing in Group A but the manner of the result – and, indeed, the preparation for the game – is the real reason for hope as we look to France in 2016.

The devil is in the detail. I was delighted to see Gordon Strachan, his backroom team and the A squad attend the under-21s’ 2-1 victory against Slovakia at St Mirren Park. With the aim of Creating Heroes, the presence and support of our best players was both aspirational and inspirational to the players.

So, too, was Gordon’s invitation for some of Billy Stark’s team to train with the first-team at Hampden Park on Saturday. Imagine how young Andrew Robertson, for example, will have felt to hear the Scotland manager speak so highly of him on national radio, especially considering the young full back’s meteoric rise from the excellent Queens Park youth system, to Dundee United in the SPFL Premiership, to being name-checked as one of the star players in the Scotland A squad’s training session at the national stadium.

The philosophy of working together is key to our Performance Strategy and while the real fruits of the labour will be harvested longer-term, it is important that we record the success stories that unquestionably show a forward momentum.

Last night, Scott Booth’s Victory Shield team made an impressive start to their campaign with a 3-0 win away to Northern Ireland. Alistair Coots took the plaudits with two excellent goals but of wider importance is seeing the improvement in our play and commitment to our attacking philosophy.

I would like to congratulate our coaching staff for taking the under-19s and under-17s respectively into the elite rounds of their European Championships campaigns together for the first time since 2009. It shows that our youth teams are progressing and that a more intense programme of international matches is starting to pay off. The women’s game continues its own terrific growth, and as well as Anna Signeul’s side making an empathic start to their campaign with two resounding victories, the women’s under-17s have led the way by qualifying for the European Championship finals in England later this year while the under-19s continue to impress.

It is our ultimate objective to have all of our National Youth Teams competing in major tournaments on a regular basis and while that is a long-term project, we must recognise and encourage the successes that happen on the way.

I am a great believer in the development of strong relationships between the national teams and the club coaches. Whilst at times there can be a feeling that young players are not being treated with the kid gloves that clubs would like, nevertheless I believe clubs should also be proud of watching their players represent their country. It is an acknowledgement and endorsement of the work undertaken by their clubs and rest assured we do our utmost to ensure players are returned enriched by the experience and able to add value to their club side as a result of the opportunities they have been given.

Through our own Performance Information Management System, we can now evaluate that progress from all of our National Youth Teams in a more scientific and technological way: evaluating pass completion rates,  possession retention, opportunities created in the final third, goals conceded and other KPIs that we can measure on a regular basis to provide evidence of improvement.

These components are all part of The Scotland Way: developing and harnessing an attractive and purposeful style of play throughout all our National Youth Teams. Ultimately, we aspire to have all our teams confident in attack-building from defence, quick and incisive midfield play, exciting wing play and, of course, clinical finishing.

While the World Cup in Brazil will be a poorer place without the Tartan Army, we should at least be heartened by a future of possibility.

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Momentous juncture on road to 2020 vision

The announcement from the Scottish Government that Edinburgh will be the venue for the National Performance Centre for Sport is, I believe, one of the most significant steps forward on the road to realising the Scottish FA’s 2020 Vision.

The future international players from our country now have somewhere to aspire to; a place where dreams can be made.

By 2016, we will be the lead occupant in a purpose-built facility for sporting excellence housed in the country’s capital city. While the architects’ designs are sure to inspire when the building work begins it’s what lies beneath the NPC that will give football and, for that matter, multi-sport engagement the foundation to produce generation after generation of elite talent.

Inevitably, the fluctuating results of the Scotland National Team in the past campaign have opened a debate on when the Performance Strategy can legitimately be judged. As a Dutchman, I am no stranger to debate or contrary viewpoints but for the sake of the national game I cannot stress clearly enough the importance of patience.

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Everyday’s a school day for Scotland captain Darren Fletcher

Guest post by Darren Fletcher

This week, I went back to school. The Hampden Park lecture theatre, to be exact. I was there to give my support to the Scottish FA’s Regional Performance Schools but as much as I enjoyed the opportunity to help, in some way, inspire what we hope will be the future generation of Scotland internationalists by sharing my experience, I learned something along the way, too.

I am a passionate supporter of the programme overseen by Mark Wotte, the Performance Director, and his team of coaches. For long enough we have asked the question as to why Scotland have stopped qualifying for major tournaments and stopped producing the skilful players of old. Actions speak louder than words. For the first time, the Scottish FA is working in tandem with the clubs and the education authorities to ensure that the most talented young players have access to an extra eight hours of skills development as part of the curriculum ever week.

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