THE SPL Under-20 league is approaching the end of its first year in existence. More home-grown kids are playing first-team football in Scotland than have done so for many years. The average, often over-paid, foreigners are gradually being phased out, although most of the above arose out of financial necessity.
Darren Murray, player development manager at Hearts, took charge of the club’s under-20 team for the final time this season against Dunfermline at Stirling University this afternoon. He acknowledged the merits of under-20 football, but called for change to avoid youth academy players stagnating due to lack of football.
In a season when many of Hearts’ first-team squad are eligible for the under-20s, Murray has been left with schoolkids filling gaps in his squad due to players being promoted to senior level. The exposure helps them develop, but too often the gap between under-17 level and under-20 level is too great.
In a wide-ranging interview, Murray revealed his desire to enter a Hearts youth team in the East of Scotland league. He also feels it is vital to re-introduce reserve football for development purposes rather than play a maximum of three overage players at under-20 level. He petitioned Mark Wotte, performance director at the SFA, to implement summer football rather than packing players off and shutting down youth academies when the best weather of the year begins.
“My own individual preference would be under-16s, under-18s and then a reserve team,” said Murray. “I think every manager would like reserves. We have people in the first-team squad who can’t get games because the under-20 league only allows three overage players. Professional youth coaches all over Scotland will be training with just seven or eight players at times because of this under-20 league.
“I agree with a lot of Mark Wotte’s philosophy and the way he’s got youth teams playing is exactly what we’ve implemented at Hearts over the last few years. It’s no surprise we’ve had 20 academy players playing in the Scotland youth squads this season. Kids need to be developed as individuals, but it’s got to be as part of a team structure.
“I think we’re the only developed country in Europe which doesn’t have a recognised youth league behind a reserve or under-21 league. I think that’s a problem because it’s important everyone has a game to look forward to. Youth players are the same as professionals, they train towards a game. That hasn’t been the case for some of our younger lads this season.
“The training at our academy is all related to the forthcoming game, so for someone not to have an opportunity to play at the weekend isn’t right for developing players, in my opinion. I’ve been thinking about entering a Hearts youth team in the East of Scotland League. I spoke about it months ago and I’ve consulted John Murray (Hearts’ director of football) about it, but I think it might be difficult. Whether they would accept it or not, I don’t know.
“The under-20s will be here next season and we’ve got to embrace it. We’ve seen a lot of development with our younger players this season. Great credit is due to Chris Smith and Andy Brown, our under-17 coaches, plus Michael O’Neill and Jim Blair, our under-15 coaches. The boys we’ve used in the under-20s this year have come from their squads and they’ve done a fantastic job for me. It’s a real team effort at the academy and all the staff are encouraged when they see a young player make the first team.”
Murray explained why summer football could enhance youth development further. “The sun comes out at this time of year, the grass grows, and we shut down our pitches and our players,” he said. “If you’re looking for real development from Mark Wotte, could he not have implemented summer football? That would’ve been a real change. Systems and style of play does develop players. However, our academy kids have lost between eight and nine weeks of training over the winter months.
“Are we being backwards in Scotland by stopping playing when the summer months come in? That’s the best time to develop young players – when conditions are better and you can train longer. I’ve seen sessions going on when it’s blowing a gale and hammering down with rain, and all you can do is keep players going to stay warm. I’ve been in that position myself as a part-time coach. Individuals need to be developed technically when they are very young, and that’s another problem I see in Scotland. The best coaches should be working with kids when they first join a club’s academy at nine or ten. We have some great coaches working in that area. The fans are now seeing players with imagination, which is what I like to have as a coach.”
Financial cuts and squad trimming means Hearts are now using kids as young as 14 in their under-20 team. “Eight of the 13 players we used against Celtic on Saturday were schoolkids,” revealed Murray. “Every Celtic player was full-time, but our lads were very organised and did well within the game. Only three individual errors cost us goals. In terms of development, those lads would have learned a lot just from that one game.
“This league is called an under-20 league, but our under-20 players are in the first team. That’s given me the chance to blood a lot of younger guys and see if they can handle this environment. We’ve played two 14-year-olds in the under-20s, we’ve played 15-year-olds as well. As a development coach, it’s great to see these young kids move on and believe in themselves. It’s about getting the next phase of players through at this football club.”
Riccarton’s classes of 2011 and 2012 are already excelling at senior level. None more so than Jamie Walker, who scored a screamer in the 3-0 defeat of St Mirren last Saturday. Murray revealed the psychological work which honed the 19-year-old winger earlier in the campaign. “After he played in the first team, he was put back into the under-20s because he wasn’t working hard enough and maybe his attitude wasn’t the greatest. I took him individually for extra sessions. They weren’t football-related, they were sessions to psychologically break him, to be honest.
“He was running with me individually for two or three afternoons and I got him involved in boxing training. He did that two or three times a week for two months. Psychologically, we had to get him stronger. That time was really important for him. I think boxing training is something which can really help younger footballers. Now, I’m not into people hitting each other, but boxing training gives you a discipline and a hunger. It takes you right out of your comfort zone and I’m a big advocate of it.
“I felt it was only a matter of time till he scored a goal like that one on Saturday and I was delighted for the boy because he’s worked ever so hard. If he keeps developing the way we think he’s going to develop, he’s got a big, big future.”
Likewise many others at Tynecastle. “Nine of the 14 players who played against St Mirren were academy graduates,” continued Murray. “Look down south at Crewe Alexandra, they had a team of 11 academy graduates a few weeks ago. They were putting out a clear message and I think Hearts are also putting out a clear message to all young players in this area. If you want to play first-team football, this is the place to come. We know what we can do here.
“That said, it’s not just about Hearts’ first-team players. I take pride seeing Conrad Balatoni winning the First Division with Partick Thistle. I take pride in Stephen Husband, Ryan Wallace and Chris Kane at Dunfermline, plus Johnny Stewart and Johnny Brown at Brechin. I take pride in all the youth players who have come through here. They have all been part of this academy’s development.
“Other clubs work hard on youth development too. I sent texts to (Hibs youth academy manager) Bill Hendry and (under-20 coach) James McDonaugh after Hibs’ Scottish Cup semi-final win to congratulate them on Danny Handling and Alex Harris. I thought their performances were exceptional. I’ve watched Harris in particular for a number of years and you only want good things for that kid. He’s such a grounded lad as well.
“Others have moved on from here like Christophe Berra, Lee Wallace, David Templeton, Andy Driver, Ryan McGowan. I take a pride in every single one of them because I’ve worked with them and helped develop them. As a developer, it’s great to see so many young players coming through in Scotland just now.
“People like Willie Miller are saying Hearts have the best group of young players in Scotland. It means a lot to get that recognition but the players deserve the credit, as do John Murray and John Cockerell (assistant youth academy director). If we can keep them together, this place will only go from strength to strength.”