The research shows that with eligibility for youth soccer teams in Scotland starting in January, boys born in the early months of the year tend to get selected ahead of rivals born later in the year because of their size and strength.
The effect was on display in last week’s match between Scotland and Estonia, in which six of the players who started at Pittodrie were born in the crucial January to April period and seven in the first six months of the year.
Injured captain Darren Fletcher was also born in February, as was the new manager, Gordon Strachan.
Now report author Dr Cameron Stark, a consultant in public health medicine at NHS Highland, wants the rules governing youth football to be relaxed to allow greater movement between age groups to end an unnecessary waste of potential talent. He also suspects that the RAE has an effect on the recruiting pool for other major sports in which Scotland wants to shine on the global stage.
“Our figures do confirm that there are a group of children, mainly born in the second half of the year, who are disadvantaged in their likely progression in Scottish Youth Football,” the report says. “For recreational team and school youth football coaches in Scotland, it is important that they are aware of the evidence that children born later in the year are under-represented in club registrations by the age of ten years.
“For professional clubs, there is good evidence that children in the second half of the calendar year are under-represented.”
The report adds: “Increased flexibility to move players between age groups, combined with increased knowledge and monitoring, may help to encourage more children to stay in the sport.”
The report was compiled by Stark and Charlie Christie, the former Inverness Caledonian Thistle manager and now the club’s head of youth development, with the help of statistics experts at Stirling University’s School of Sport.
The researchers analysed data for 2010-11 from the Scottish Football Association (SFA) giving the year and month of birth of more than 29,000 male youth players registered in three categories: recreational (boy’s club teams), youth initiative (registered with professional clubs) and performance tier (mainly Premier League teams). They found that within each tier, the higher rates of registration were among boys born in the first half of the year.
“We found evidence of the relative age effect at all three levels, but it was most pronounced at the performance tier level,” Stark said. “There was also some evidence of an interaction with Scottish school years, with the peak [registration] rate in some years being in March – these would be boys who were the oldest in their school year.”
Stark said that children born on 31 December in any one year have been found to be 15 per cent “younger” than children born on 1 January of the same year in terms of physical maturity. This was an important factor because professional teams start picking children from about eight onwards, often from school games, tournaments and attendance at coaching sessions offered by clubs.
“The children who catch the eye will often be the most developed: stronger, faster, more co-ordinated,” Stark said. “These children are genuinely better at that stage, so it’s not surprising that they’re picked up. Younger children may then pass under the radar.”
He added: “In Scotland, professional teams train at least three times a week from under 11 onwards. So, if you include games, someone in the performance tier, training 40 weeks a year, will get at least 180 hours of professional coaching a year, plus game time against other children who are also very good.
“By under 15, you’re probably looking at the difference of a thousand hours of coaching compared to kids who aren’t in that structure. This becomes a big gap to bridge.”
Christie said: “It is an awful thought that any young sportsman would miss out because of his birthday. This report has brought to the fore something I was aware of here and in other countries, but I didn’t realise the extent of it.
“There can be a line of thought that ‘no matter if you’re born in January or December you’ll make it if you’re good enough’. But it’s not that simple when, quite often, players are recruited at a young age, often because of the physical aspect.
“The SFA are aware of the relative age effect and have introduced a rule that three players born towards the end of the year can play a year down. We would like to see the rules relaxed more.”
Neil Mackintosh, performance development manager with the SFA, said: “A small country like Scotland needs to make use of every bit of footballing talent. We cannot afford to lose anyone.
“Approximately 70 per cent of children signed are born in the first half of the year, so we’re selecting from a limited gene pool.”