Scottish football often seems gripped by a Cassandra complex. Or, to tartanise the phenomenon, exhibits a Private Frazer personality. Scotland under-19 coach Scot Gemmill refuses to believe the national game is “aw doomed”. That is not the result of the 44-year-old being a head-in-the-clouds wishful thinker. It’s down to him having headed up a group that for two years have held their own in the international arena.
Gemmill’s 19s are bidding to reach the elite round of the 2016 European Championships – the stage before the actual finals – over the next week in the Republic of Ireland. To do that they must finish in the top two in a group that will pit them against Latvia today, Slovenia on Sunday and the host nation in six days’ time.
Scottish confidence in taking this step is not misplaced. They are a group of players that have graduated from the 17s along with Gemmill. At that age group they achieved a Scottish first in qualifying for back-to-back European Championship finals; the 2014 competition bringing a never-before-claimed semi-final appearance.
As a 19s team, they last month defeated Mexico 3-1 in a Germany-staged friendly tournament. It was one wherein they might have claimed more than a 2-2 draw with the junior version of the world champions, and registered a creditable 1-1 scoreline against the USA, having earlier this season beaten Bulgaria. No wonder that Gemmill can’t in all conscience fall into line with those talking about football in this country effectively being broken.
“There are so many aspects to saying ‘Scottish football is broken’. It’s such a broad subject,” he said. “I can only judge it on my involvement in the past two years, working with the under-17s and some of the younger age groups. From the little bits I’ve been involved with, I can put a positive slant on it by telling the truth. The young players coming through are deserving of the optimism that is around them because of what they’ve achieved. I’ve been lucky to work with them. They’re determined and capable of competing with anyone they come up against. The big issue is that it continues from the under-19s to the full squad.”
The academy system was once perceived as the cure for all the problems of rearing top-class talent that mushroomed across the 1990s. Now, some, such as Steven Pressley, are railing against it for producing molly-coddled young men under-played and over-coached.
“I don’t agree with the criticisms of the academy system based on the players I’ve worked with,” Gemmill said. “I’ve seen them play against top teams and they’re equal to them right now. Don’t take me literally. We played against France in the summer and they were better than us but there has to be common sense applied. France proved to be the best under-17s. I expected them to win the World Cup, which they didn’t. There has to be context to the level. These players have proved themselves to me, the staff and the footballing world. They’re deserving of backing and optimism because they’re competing at a very good level.”
That is all you can ask, because such commendations could not be offered up of the senior side or the 21s. Therein lies the rub. Between the age of 18 and 20 promising young Scottish internationals all too often seem to see their potential become spoken of in the past tense. They do not make the step up to first-team football and, as a result, regress.
It is encouraging that in Ireland Gemmill can call on the core of the 17s side that memorably reach the last four of the European Championships 18 months ago. Yet the fact is that Celtic trio Jack Breslin – the 19s captain – Joe Thomson and Aidan Nesbitt, Rangers brothers Robbie and Ross McCrorie and Reading’s Zak Jules and Aberdeen’s Scott Wright have made little headway towards their senior sides in the intervening period. Ronny Deila has promoted Kieran Tierney at the Scottish champions, and Ryan Hardie has had a taste of first-team action at Ibrox. However any progress they have made pales against that of an 18-year-old such as Porto’s Ruben Neves, handed the captaincy for his club in the Champions League.
“What’s happened at Porto tells of a real key point,” said Gemmill. “I don’t care how experienced you are in working with young players or scouting them, until you give them a chance – like this guy at Porto – nobody knows how you are going to react. That applied to our players too. The key thing for a young player is to get your chance. Bit by bit our players are being given that.
“You would have to say [there is a reluctance by managers to trust youngsters], but, if you put yourselves in their shoes we all know why – that is because the team winning or losing determines whether they keep their job. The manager has to be brave and go with their instinct, whether they feel that the players are ready. But I can understand from the manager’s view. It’s easy for someone like me to say I would do it because I am not in their position. But I’ll say it anyway...I would do it!”