Rangers' homegrown hopefuls make for engaging talent show

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EVERY supporter likes to see a homegrown player progress through the ranks to the first team, but there have been precious few examples in recent seasons if your club is Celtic or Rangers.

The Ibrox club made a bold bid to reverse the trend in 2001 when they built Murray Park, a 14million ‘football factory’ where promising youngsters are nurtured and cajoled with the aim of turning potential into the finished article.

The building of the training complex was the catalyst for a new six-part TV series from BBC Scotland. Blue Heaven, the first episode of which is screened this evening, documents the hopes and aspirations of a group of young footballers as they try to make the breakthrough at Rangers.

Granted unprecedented access for two years, the series begins during the Dick Advocaat era and continues through to the present day.

The long gestation period gives the series a density and allows for ‘plot’ lines to develop. Peter Barber-Fleming, executive producer for Saltire Films which made the series, likens Blue Heaven to a soap in the sense that viewers will "watch and identify with the central characters".

Characters is an apt word as the programme is full of them, from David Ford (aka wee Fordie), a diminutive 14-year- from a Rangers-daft family in Pollok, to Chris Burke, a promising winger who is suddenly thrust into the first team and scores on his debut after coming off the bench.

It is the bubbly Ford family who threaten to steal the show. David’s mother Dessie reveals that her son’s interest in football began at nine months when he would kick a balloon in a carrier bag while in his cot.

His father, Rab, meanwhile, has taken to watching Rangers games in a caravan in the back garden because Dessie is sick of clearing up the beer cans left in the house by friends and relatives whenever the Gers are on the box. The self-styled Caravan True Blues are giving wee Fordie their full backing but Jan Derks, Rangers’ head of youth development, is concerned at the youngster’s lack of height and slight frame.

Derks, who was replaced three-quarters of the way through filming by George Adams, is a central figure in the first two episodes and is faced with some difficult decisions. Never more so than when he has to tell one young player he is being released by Rangers.

"When you were 13 you were a big player and everyone wanted to sign you," Derks tells Kevin Morrison. "We did, but your progress has not been as we had hoped."

Morrison, now 17, is told Rangers will help him find a new club - "Falkirk or Stirling Albion," suggests Derks - but the scene where he tells his girlfriend Sara the bad news is a poignant one.

It’s a fine line between success and failure and having the talent is not always enough. "For most players who don’t make it, it’s not about their footballing ability - it’s their mentality," stresses Derks.

A Dutchman who was brought to Ibrox by Advocaat, Derks is keen to see Rangers go back to their roots. "Rangers are a Scottish club and should have Scottish players," he says.

All well and good in principle, but the reality is somewhat different. The Advocaat era led to an influx of overseas personnel both on and off the park, while under McLeish Rangers regularly field a team of 11 non-Scots.

The situation has been exacerbated by the departure of Barry Ferguson, the one player of recent years who has come through the Ibrox youth system to establish himself with both club and country.

Credit where credit’s due though, and Advocaat should be lauded for identifying the need for Murray Park in the first place. "When I arrived I couldn’t believe there were no facilities," he tells the programme. "It was a beautiful stadium and a beautiful club but [it had] no training facilities."

David Murray, Rangers’ owner, took Advocaat’s advice and built the complex which now bears his name. Murray describes the training centre as the "best financial investment Rangers have ever made".

No-one expects Murray Park to produce first-team players instantly, but in these austere times the club are relying on it to pay dividends. As Murray himself says: "Clubs can’t keep being net spenders of 40million per year."

With Rangers’ debt now up to 68million, transfer funds are scarce, and the programme begins with McLeish talking wistfully about how he’d "love to get a crop of youngsters through at the one time".

Such occurrences are rare. Even Manchester United, who produced a golden generation in the mid-Nineties which included Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers, have struggled to produce another.

But there is a genuine belief at Ibrox that some of the boys featured in the documentary can make it. Burke would appear to be in pole position. Described by the coaches as "an old fashioned winger", the teenager comes across as engaging and level-headed.

He decided to stay on at school for fifth year and sat his highers before signing for Rangers. He is realistic enough to know how hard it will be to make the grade. "You don’t see many Scottish boys making it at Celtic and Rangers," he admits.

Perhaps the biggest compliment you can pay Burke is that he was supposed to join a handful of Murray Park youngsters at the press launch for Blue Heaven yesterday but couldn’t attend because he’d been called into the first team squad for last night’s League Cup tie against Forfar at Ibrox.

• Blue Heaven, BBC1 Scotland, tonight, 7pm.

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