How Aberdeen, Celtic, Rangers, Dundee United, Hibs and Hearts could have paved the way for golden age of Scottish full-backs
It is decades since there was genuine cause to trot out the old line about how shaking a tree in these parts would see a Scottish centre-back fall out.
Deliciously, though, recent developments suggest the couthy saying may only need to be updated. Down to the fact that these days it can feel, were you to jiggle such branches, a Scottish full-back would be dislodged. The sprouting of such young coveted performers appears to have no end.
Consider events over the past 24 hours alone. As a deal banking Aberdeen a guaranteed £4.5m fee - with the potential for at least £3m add-ons - for 18-year-old right-back Calvin Ramsay was finalised to take the confident youngster to Liverpool, reports speculated that Bologna could be open to accepting an £18m bid from Arsenal for 20-year-old left-back Aaron Hickey. Such an acquisition, it has been claimed, could result in the Serie A club looking to replace him with Hibs’ 20-year-old left back - there is a theme developing here - Josh Doig. And all this is before considering that 20-year-old right-back Nathan Patterson headed to Everton from Rangers in a deal worth an initial £12m in the January window. Doing so as 17-year-old Kerr Smith, who can operate on both flanks, traded Dundee United for Aston Villa’s academy the same month. For a sum that could reach £2m.
Now, the transfers for Hearts product Hickey and Doig, as it stands, remain firmly in the realms of the possible. However, should they become reality, with Scotland’s kingpin full-backs Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney already integral performers for Liverpool and Arsenal respectively, Scotland could boast no fewer than eight full-backs – five on the left flank, two on the right, and one a bit of both – in European football’s big five leagues. An extraordinary scenario to contemplate. Not least because, in addition, Celtic’s Scottish full-backs, right-sided Anthony Ralston and counterpart Greg Taylor on the left, are fresh from club seasons and recent international involvement wherein the pair greatly enhanced their credentials.
The upshot is that Scotland could have an absolute plethora of top level performers to select from in the full-back areas for the next decade and more. Only Robertson, at the age of 29, is even in the middle part of his career, with Tierney the next ‘oldest’ at 25, Taylor not reaching that landmark until November, and Ralston still just 23. Of course, this would depend on all of the aforementioned establishing themselves at their respective clubs. And when it comes to the coltish members of the full-back fraternity, that can hardly be a given.
According to those in the know, Smith is a player of enormous potential. Yet, he only made 12 senior starts on Tayside before heading to Birmingham at the start of the year, and since then - understandably, in light of his tender age - he has been restricted to a smatter of outings for Villa’s under-23s. It may be that this is what lies immediately ahead of him. More awkwardly, this could be a similar story for Ramsay. The Aberdonian looked every inch the real deal in the two seasons he graced the senior set-up at Pittodrie, his most recent campaign - even as it was hampered by injury - earning him the SFWA young player of the year award. And he certainly believes his career is going only one way, with the teenager boldly stating last month that he feels he can be “as good as” Robertson and Tierney “one day”. Fighting talk, the only problem with it is that Ramsay will face an almighty scrap just for game time under Jurgen Klopp.
Consider how his transfer has been portrayed down south. He may have become Aberdeen’s record sale, but media reports detailing the move for, essentially, a £4.5m down payment, spoke of Liverpool picking him up for a “bargain fee”. That is the world he has now entered. Moreover, it is a domain in which he won’t just vie with the stand-out Trent Alexander-Arnold for minutes. A 23-year-old declared only yesterday by Ajax winger Anthony as “one of the best defenders in the world”, and who plundered 19 assists in his 47 appearances last season. A return delivered as Klopp’s men came within a whisker of a quadruple in capturing both cups only to lose out on the title on the last day, before succumbing to Real Madrid in the Champions League final. Competition for Ramsay will also come in the form of Joe Gomez … who cost £4m from Charlton seven years ago, when he was the age Liverpool’s newest arrival is now.
A cautionary tale for Ramsay and Smith - and, for that matter, Hickey and Doig should they also be on the move in the coming weeks - is provided by Patterson’s predicament. The former Rangers player, despite being championed as one of the most exciting Scottish talents in the past decade, is still to feature in the English Premier League despite the travails that enveloped the Goodison Park as they fended off relegation. An added complication for Hickey in the event of being acquired by Arsenal is that he would have none other than the supreme, though injury troubled, former Celtic man Tierney standing in his way.
The challenge for the phalanx of young Scottish full-backs on an upwardly-mobile track wherever they end up is to progress from being wanted to being treasured. There is a feeling that Brexit has played a significant part in English clubs, especially, taking chances on fresh-faced potential from north of the border. Whereas shopping across global markets for assets to develop was previously issue-free, the requirement now to seal work permits on such far-from-internationally-established performers makes such market sifting altogether less straightforward. Scotland’s fraternity of burgeoning full-backs must seize the opportunities this situation have presented.
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