ANDY McLaren believes it is slightly disingenuous to refer to the batch of young footballers currently impressing in the Scottish leagues as kids. He says they have proved they are old enough and experienced enough to shed themselves of that label but he warns that, if they want to fulfil their potential, they need to understand that breaking into the first team is just the beginning of the journey.
The former Dundee United and Kilmarnock player has been impressed with the start both clubs have made to their Premiership campaign and says much of that is down to the conveyor belt of younger players both clubs are able to rely on.
“They’ve been brilliant, they’ve been a breath of fresh air. I thought Aberdeen would be up challenging but Kilmarnock are level on points with Celtic and United are top of the league. You would have got long odds on that at the start of the season. The two of them have had unbelievable starts. With Dundee United at the top of the league, it’s probably been the best start they’ve had in a long, long time and Kilmarnock have been a big surprise for me because I thought, taking Kris Boyd out of that team, they would really struggle. They had relied on big Boydy scoring and he kept them up last season but Allan Johnston and Gary Locke have changed the way they play.
“Dundee United are similar as two of their rising stars have been taken out of their team as well – the boy [Andrew] Robertson and [Ryan] Gauld. It doesn’t seem to have affected them and they now have the wee boy [Ryan] Dow, who has come in. I think the biggest compliment you can pay is that you don’t notice any difference, do you?”
Enjoying an impressive start, the teams meet at Rugby park this evening and McLaren expects a close match but he says there is no reason the Tannadice team cannot maintain their place at the top of the table.
“I don’t see why not. They’ve had young boys coming through and they now have a year’s experience. They are young but they’re not kids any more.”
A star at a young age, McLaren broke into the Tannadice first team as a teenager so he knows the demands. He also knows the opportunities that abound if the prodigious talents keep their feet on the ground.
The once-capped Scotland winger’s mistakes and regrets are well-documented but he says that the biggest thing players need to guard against is the belief that they have ever “made it”, no matter how early any success knocks on their door.
“I thought that was me when I became a first-team footballer but once you make your debut, that’s when the hard work starts. It’s easy to get in the first team, it’s harder to stay there year after year. Paul Sturrock had us out every single day and it wasn’t coaching, it was practising.
“Practising and coaching are two very different things. You can put on sessions and show them what to do but they have to put in the hours. I don’t know if that’s the case at most clubs now – I see these Facebook and Twitter boys who are out the door at 12:30 and they’re away home to watch boxsets. You’re not going to improve sitting in the house watching boxsets, you know what I mean?
“Cristiano Ronaldo, he practises more than everybody and he has had the rewards for that. The more you put in, the more you get out and if it’s good enough for the best players, then why not? When we had to go back in for the afternoon most of the boys moaned about it but guys like Cristiano Ronaldo are the first ones in and last ones away and, if you were to have a blueprint for a footballer, he would be it. He has everything. He’s good in the air, can use both feet, great physique. He rolls about a bit too much for my liking but apart from that he is the ideal specimen but he hasn’t got to where he is by sheer luck. For him it’s not been about going into training for two hours and then going away and forgetting all about it.”
In McLaren’s heyday, players were snapped up early and were brought through the youth systems and those who failed to make the grade at that young age rarely got a second chance.
It is different now: “I think clubs are beginning to think that there are wee gems in the second or third divisions. People are going out and are watching these games and there are maybe boys at 17 or 18 who have had a bit of first-team experience at that level. For clubs it’s a wee bit of a shortcut, getting boys with one or two years’ first-team experience, even if it’s with Queen’s Park or somewhere like that. You can’t beat that experience of playing first-team football.”
• Andy McLaren was previewing the SPFL’s latest #fitbafriday clash between his two former sides which will be televised live on BT Sport, with a 7:45 kick-off. To get BT Sport visit www.bt.com/sport or call 0800 169 1690.