ISLAM Feruz should be well used to being referred to as the next big thing. The Somalian-born naturalised Scot has been singled out as a star in the making since his days coming through the Celtic youth ranks. Now at Chelsea, he is thriving amongst the multi-million-pound talent and Ricky Sbragia, the stand-in Scotland under-21 coach, believes the player has everything needed to succeed at the top of the game.
But dealing with such expectations is not always easy. Like many in his age group there have been fears that Feruz wasn’t mentally strong enough or mature enough to keep himself grounded. Aged 16, he became the youngest ever player to be capped for Scotland under-21s but just weeks later he tweeted about his desire to play in the African Nations Cup and his eligibility to do so with two countries. That was deemed a slap in the face to the Scottish set-up which has nurtured him and had pursued a FIFA rule change to allow youngsters with five years of education in a country to represent that nation.
But Feruz is already travelling the road to redemption. Last month he netted a hat-trick as Scotland under-19s defeated Switzerland to win their European Championship qualifying group. It led SFA performance director Mark Wotte to hail him as the “next Scotland goalscorer” and this week he has again been elevated to the under-21 squad for Wednesday’s away friendly against Portugal.
Wotte had qualified his praise of the lad who travelled to Scotland in 2001 with his family seeking asylum. He said that much would depend on the right mindset and guidance. Sbragia, who earned a reputation for spotting and nurturing quality youngsters during his time as Manchester United’s reserve team coach, believes Feruz has both sorted.
Admitting he hadn’t even heard of Feruz until he joined the SFA coaching set-up, he said the signs were positive. Having overcome the social media mishaps after his club, Chelsea, applied pressure on Feruz to close his Twitter account, Sbragia has also been impressed.
“I think he has grown up. We have had a lot of communications with him and, obviously, with [academy coaches] Neil Bath and Jim Fraser at Chelsea. They have been really pleased with him. He is a young player in a big city and these things happen but I think he has knuckled down and he looked a lot fitter on Sunday [playing for Chelsea youths] when I saw him and he scored with his first chance. His work ethic was good and everything about him was good. He looked very relaxed and maybe he is on the pitch – he’s far more comfortable and relaxed. He is very private and he has stopped tweeting but that’s not down to me!”
With the need for a conveyor belt of talent through the Scotland ranks, Feruz would seem to be the target man many are pinning their hopes on and Sbragia believes it is with just cause.
“But time will tell,” he says. “He is with a fantastic club and the people who oversee him, they are good people and they play the game right. I have seen them and they are exceptional at Chelsea, absolutely exceptional.”
Sbragia concedes that he did not utilise the teenager effectively when he had him at under-17 level but moving on to the under-19s, he says that situation has been resolved and Feruz has rewarded them with some massive performances since.
“We were asking him to come a little bit shorter so we could play off him but for him it’s down the sides or over the top. He has exceptional pace and great intelligence on positional sense so I got that completely wrong. That was my first year at 17s and I didn’t use him at his best and we suffered because of that but he has got an eye for scoring goals and you can’t take that away from him and his work rate was phenomenal when I saw him for Chelsea last Sunday.”