IT IS normally golf clubs that those in the vicinity of Troon have in their hands.
However, a group of young footballers currently stationed on the Ayrshire coast are being cast as torchbearers. That, at least, is the hope of Scottish football fans, after the national under-17 team qualified earlier this week for the European championship finals.
They did so with one game to spare – against Romania at Rugby Park this afternoon (3pm). This fixture can now be used as a warm-up for the finals, which take place in Malta in May. Manager Scot Gemmill sat with his players yesterday as they watched the official Fifa launch video for the tournament.
“The moment that finished the focus switched back to making sure we beat Romania,” said Gemmill, whose famous father Archie watched from the stand on Monday as Scotland kicked off their elite round qualifying group section with victory over Bosnia. Archie, who earned 43 international caps and once coached the under-19 team, has since returned home to England, secure in the knowledge that Scotland have already done what they needed to do to secure one of only seven available finals berths.
Scot Gemmill only took over from Scott Booth earlier this month and has now helped lead Scotland to a first major finals since the same age group qualified for the same tournament in Turkey in 2008, when players like John Fleck, Jamie Ness and Grant Adam featured. The aim is to avoid losing all three games like they did then, while it is also vital to ensure that this new generation are encouraged to flourish, perhaps in contrast to what happened to the likes of Fleck et al.
Of course, the work does not stop now. It has only begun. Mark Wotte, the Scottish Football Association’s technical director, says he will not rest until there are “five Ryan Gaulds and five Lewis Macleods”. The former is currently starring for Dundee United and cut his international teeth with the under-17s, as did Rangers player Macleod.
Hopes are now pinned to the likes of Dundee’s Craig Wighton and Calvin Miller, one of six Celtic players in the squad, as Scotland reap the benefit of the Parkhead club’s decision to establish a performance school at St Ninian’s High in Kirkintilloch.
The SFA’s own performance school network was implemented slightly more recently, following the publication of Henry McLeish’s Scottish football review. Wotte was recruited to oversee the process and yesterday described recent successes, including a first Victory Shield triumph for 15 years at the end of last year, as “just the beginning”.
He also applauded Celtic manager Neil Lennon’s nurturing of the 17-year-old starlet Liam Henderson, who scored his first goal for the club against Partick Thistle in midweek.
“It is exactly how you should manage talent,” he said. “Get them in first-team training, then perhaps in a training camp you let them play a game and you put a mentor in to look after them, like Scott Brown. Now Liam is expected to be the new thing.”
The Scotland under-17s team’s achievement this week brings further credibility to the SFA’s performance strategy under Wotte. “I don’t think you can expect big results yet,” said Wotte. “But it is helpful that you can show evidence of progress.”
A win over the much-vaunted Belgium on Wednesday, particularly one secured after going a goal behind, points to the desire present among the squad. However, Wotte was particularly heartened by the technique in evidence.
The 55-year-old still experiences a sense of deflation when he watches a club under-17s game and “the goalkeeper kicks the ball up the park when there are four defenders waiting to receive it”. He salutes the endeavours of Darren Murray, not so long ago the player development manager at Hearts. “He was fantastic,” said Wotte. “Another good example is St Mirren. But across Scotland I think we can improve and encourage young defenders to take the ball on and try and find solutions.”
Wotte aims to convince coaches to be braver and urge their players to bring the ball out from the back. He wants to see two-footed players who are able to take a first touch and pass the ball on and, if there are no other options, to have the confidence to hold on to the ball, “like a Dani Alves – or a Jimmy Johnstone”.
Scotland’s new wave of talent is not emerging from the traditional breeding ground of footballers such as Johnstone, who honed his talents in the backstreets. In the case of current young players, Wotte has observed a shift “from working-class to middle-class”. He added: “In Holland it is the same. When there are a lot of big cities in the country then you still see the street mentality and also in places like Serbia, where the average person makes €300 a month and football is still the way out.
“But these boys we have in the squad are mostly middle-class players, well- educated and well-nurtured. You can give them a task and they can understand what to do. And when they have the right personality and the winning gene from their parents then you can do anything – for example, Andy Murray is born and raised in a middle-class family with an unbelievable desire to win. That quality is just not present in the working-class.
“It is not a bad thing,” he continued. “But it is not good if we don’t find or go looking for those gems in the schemes anymore. That is something we still have to work on. I know there are parents who cannot afford to pay fees for boys’ club football. The strong, fighting characters still come from the schemes – but I saw 11 strong, fighting characters work their socks off and combine to beat Belgium on Wednesday. It does not matter if they are from Castlemilk, Leith or wherever.”