The “vast majority” of young players at the SFA’s Regional Performance Schools will go on to play at senior level for Scottish clubs, Mark Wotte believes.
Speaking as the seven schools together reached the milestone of 10,000 hours’ worth of coaching since they opened their doors six months ago, the governing body’s performance director acclaimed the programme as without equal in world football.
“I believe in the world there is no such thing that we do,” Wotte said at Holyrood Secondary School in Glasgow, one of the centres for the four-year programme. “I’ve seen a lot.
“In the Czech Republic there’s coaches from Slavia Prague or Sparta Prague who go to the school and deliver training sessions in the afternoon instead of them having physical education. We know of the centre in France where they train full-time from Monday to Friday, school and football, then they play on Saturday for their clubs.
“But it’s only a two-year programme, from 13 to 15. So we have seen a lot of similar projects, but not like we do it.”
Last autumn more than 100 children, identified as the best under-12s in the country, enlisted at the performance schools, which are in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Falkirk, Kilmarnock and Motherwell as well as Glasgow. A similar number will join every year, until, by the time the current cohort graduates, somewhere close to 500 players will be part of the programme.
Although he is confident that he and his coaches are working along the right lines, Wotte warned that every individual student, and the clubs they join, also had crucial parts to play in determining their own future.
“We do not have the golden formula,” he continued. “We cannot predict the development of talent, because something might happen along the way, socially or physically. We want to track every move of these players and then when a player has made it we can look back and see what did we do in all these years. And then we can be a little bit predictive.
“I am pretty sure that the vast majority of these kids will play SPL, SFL 1, 2, 3, That is for sure.
“We think it is not only important for Scottish football at the top end, but it will lift the general level of Scottish football.
Having said that, at 16 we give them to the clubs full-time. So the clubs have them for the most important four years, to get them into the first team.
“Sometimes it is not easy for the biggest talents in Scottish football to get first-team appearances. That doesn’t help their development.
“We are very fortunate, because of the lack of money, that clubs are using the younger players quicker. When I came here a year ago only [Aberdeen’s] Fraser Fyvie of the under-19 team was playing first-team football: now eight or nine of the squad are playing first-team football.
“This is a positive development. We can only do our job and part of that is give them a proper foundation. The clubs have to develop the final part of the player. The most important thing is dedication, because without dedication you cannot take someone. Without the workrate, the desire, you have to forget about him.
“In any sport, or if you want to become a violinist or a gymnast, you have to be so committed, so driven to becoming the best. You have to want to be better every day.”
The ultimate aim for any student in the Performance Schools is to play at international level, and although Wotte’s job is very different from that of Scotland manager Gordon Strachan, he explained there was an important way in which the national team could play their part in an overall improvement of standards. “Gordon has been very supportive, but the national team manager is here for now, while we are working for later. It is his remit to win games and get us back up the rankings – and also, which is so important, to create role models.
“Darren Fletcher is THE role model. But I think maybe in a couple of years that James Forrest could be the role model. The more role models there are, the more boys will decide to go and play football. I think James Forrest is the No 1 role model as a young, exciting player.
“I’ve seen more of them, but I don’t want to stamp them in case it works against their development. I think what we really we want is to see the exciting players, the dribblers. The guys who want to go one on one.”
The coach in charge of the Holyrood programme is former Celtic winger Brian McLaughlin. “The big focus for us has been to get the young players thinking as individuals,” he said. “If they want to have a career in the game then so much of it will come down to themselves. They need to go and train harder and work harder than everyone else: there is no real secret to it.
“If I can play a small part in the development of these young players and help them fulfil their potential then I’ll be really proud. But it will be the players who determine if they go on and make a career in football, it won’t be me. My job is to create an environment to allow them to do that.”