AN INTENSE individual by his own admission, Scot Gemmill is feeling relaxed about the Scotland squad he is taking to Bulgaria for the UEFA European Under-17 Championship finals. All because the coach is convinced that his players pass the Archie Knox test.
Gemmill has made history in leading Scotland to back-to-back finals at this level. Losing in the semi-finals last year to eventual winners the Netherlands made for a best ever showing for the country at these finals. In ruminating on whether the 2015 crop can deliver such a strong showing, the thoughtful 44-year-old cast his mind back to a coaching seminar conducted by Andy Roxburgh.
During it, the former Scotland manager was seeking to explain to a group pursuing their pro licence the need for good coaching and methodical preparations in all aspects to attain success. “He was looking for a bit of support from Archie but he said, ‘See all that Andy? If you haven’t got the players you are f***ed’. And it is true. And we have good players,” said Gemmill.
The former Scotland midfielder feels “lucky” that he is given the opportunity to work with the brightest prospects that this country can muster. Gemmill is encouraged too that this year’s 17s “haven’t just got the will to win, they have actually got the will to prepare to win, [which] lot of younger players have not”.
There are two survivors – Rangers goalkeeper Robbie McCrorie and Celtic striker Calvin Miller – from last year. The young Scots open their campaign against one of the pre-tournament favourites, France, on Thursday before further group games against Greece and Russia in the 16-team finals.
The four semi-finalists plus two winners from play-offs involving the losing quarter-finalists will qualify for the Under-17 World Cup finals in Chile across October and November.
Gemmill hopes, in one sense, this year’s tournament differs from what he experienced in 2014. “I took a lot of confidence that I can prepare the team properly and develop the players. Looking back, though, I think I should have enjoyed it a bit more than I did,” he said. “But that is life in general. You go through things in your personal and your work life and sometimes you don’t realise how good it is until you look back. I am determined to enjoy it more this year but it is easier to say that.
“I was a bit too matter of fact last year. It is about getting the balance. Last year was good and we did well but at the same time you have to keep it in perspective. It is youth team football and it doesn’t really make a ripple if the truth be told. It is just getting the balance right between making it important and special for the players, because it is, but recognising what it is at the end of the day.”
Yet, such tournaments have gained an added importance following England’s decision to bow out of the historic Victory Shield, which pitted the under-16 teams from all four parts of the United Kingdom against one another.
“I was surprised like everybody.” Gemmill said. “You just have to get on with the next stage. For that age group, it was something for them to look forward to and aspire to play in that fixture [against England] and it’s a shame that it’s gone now and I don’t think it will come back but it’s important that it’s replaced with something else.”
Gemmill is to be commended for his straight-down-the-line approach. That extends to developments with one of the stand-outs at last year’s finals, Rangers striker Ryan Hardie. The teenager has been catapulted to the ranks of regular starter under Stuart McCall, having made no impression in the first seven months of the season.
“If I’m being honest – and I will be – I am surprised he hasn’t been playing sooner. I haven’t seen a lot of the games recently but I am just going on what I know about Hardie. He scores goals, it is as simple as that. You don’t quite know how young players will react on and off the pitch until you put them in with better players. But when you put good young players in with better senior players, normally it ends in good results.
“When I first met Hardie a couple of years ago, I remember being critical to him about the fact he wasn’t doing enough defensively when we didn’t have the ball. I was trying to help him get better and, credit to him, I think he has done that. I saw him play recently for the 20s at Murray Park and he is lucky. He is naturally getting quicker, stronger, more experienced and he has the knack to score goals. So it sounds like a good mixture to me.”
UEFA U17 Championship Group C (Bulgaria)
Thursday 7 May Stara Zagora
Scotland U17 v France U17
Sunday 10 May Sozopol
Scotland U17 v Greece U17
Wednesday 13 May Sliven
Scotland U17 v Russia U17
All games 3pm BST. Top two qualify for QF