TIMING is everything. Kenny Shiels could not have dreamt of a more perfect way to illustrate the benefits of elite talent development as he addressed pupils on Monday evening in his new role as head of academy coaching with the Scottish Football Association.
News filtered through that Scott Arfield had just put Burnley ahead in an English Premier League encounter with Chelsea that they eventually lost 3-1. Shiels immediately saw his chance to press home what can be achieved with hard work. It was especially pertinent because Arfield, a graduate of the Falkirk academy, had himself learned his trade on the same fields at the University of Stirling where they stood.
The midfielder is a model example of the SFA’s aim to produce players who make the breakthrough at a Scottish club and then are able to prosper in one of the best leagues in the world. Arfield played more than 100 times for Falkirk before securing a move south, signing initially for Huddersfield Town before heading to Burnley last year.
“Scott Arfield scoring last night was brilliant because we were right on the pitch at the time with the kids,” recalled Shiels. “One of the parents had gone for a coffee and came back and said Scott Arfield had scored in the Premier league. So we called the kids in, it was the Under-13 age group, and told them about it.
“I said you will never believe who has just scored. I’ll give you a clue, it was a player who was an Under-13 player at this academy. It wasn’t this exact academy because it did not exist. But it was the Falkirk academy, which is relevant to them because he practised his skills on these same pitches.” Shiels has been recruited to oversee the youth development at the Forth Valley Football Academy, an SFA pilot project based at the University of Stirling involving the integrated youth academies of local clubs Falkirk, Stenhousemuir and East Stirlingshire. Appointed last month, Shiels has already started to implement his ideas and was glad to be presented with such a handy point of reference on Monday thanks to Arfield’s contribution at Turf Moor.
“The young boys were jubilant,” said Shiels. “They were cheering, and pleased for him. Young people have pictures in their heads of where they want to go and who their idols are. If someone has gone from their own backyard to achieve this, it gives them hope and helps us when we are instructing them.”
In a way, it also highlighted the point Shiels was making when, as manager of Kilmarnock, he expressed disappointment at losing Matthew Kennedy to Everton after only 14 first-team appearances. At the time he said the move jeopardised the then 17 year old’s development. While Kennedy himself stressed last week he had no regrets – he pointed out he is more mature as well as a better player – it hasn’t escaped Shiels’ notice that the midfielder is now back in Scotland, on loan at Hibernian.
“I never criticised Matthew for going, let’s get that straight,” said Shiels, whose own son Dean enjoyed a stint at Arsenal when he was only 15. “On the contrary, I said I did not feel Matthew was ready to go in terms of where he was. He will tell you himself he wants to get consistent football, whether it is with Hibernian or Everton.
“I thought another year or 18 months with Kilmarnock would have helped his development. Look at people who have gone down after playing 50 or so games up here. They have been successful. Look at the lads from Livingston like [Graham] Dorrans and [Robert] Snodgrass.”
Shiels described himself as excited by his new role after stints as a manager in his own right, at Kilmarnock and then, less productively, at Morton. “I don’t look behind me,” he said. “I just want to move on with my next adventure. I have toed and froed quite a lot in my life.” He does, though, intend to remain in his current role for the long run. “Improving young players is very important to me,” he said.
Mark Wotte, the SFA performance director, welcomed Shiels on board. “He is an elite youth manager and he is excellent in his approach to youth development as we saw at Kilmarnock, where he played so many young, talented boys. In addition to the people already in place at Forth Valley, Kenny is the perfect fit to bring the academy to a higher level.”
One disappointment for Wotte is that Stirling Albion are the only local senior club to have refused to become involved in the project. They have elected to keep their youth developments in-house. “As is their right,” noted Wotte.
“We spoke with the board and academy manager of Stirling Albion but they didn’t feel like joining. They are very happy with the set-up they have themselves. Stuart Taylor [Stirling Albion head of youth] is of the opinion he should be developing players for his first team,” continued Wotte. “I was disappointed with that because I feel you should give all the players the chance to join an elite academy.
“By not joining the academy they are denying the players the chance to play best v best. It has to be driven by the clubs because it’s not mandatory. If they don’t like it they can do their own thing. But producing players for Stirling Albion is a different objective to producing players for the Scottish Premiership, English Premier League or the Scottish national team. We have different objectives.”
Asked if Stirling Albion were more interested in controlling their own youth funding, Wotte replied: “That is a question you have to ask Stirling Albion. We made a real effort to get them on board but couldn’t get a yes from them because they wanted to do their own thing. It’s a free world so you have to accept that,” he added. “We think it’s better for their kids. But if their objective is to produce players for their first-team only then so be it.”