The international striker follows the likes of Aaron Hickey, Andy Irving, Liam Henderson and a handful of others who, in recent seasons, have decided the opportunity to experience a new culture and style of football was preferable to the typical, safe route of going to either half of the Old Firm or down to the lower leagues in England. And, frankly, this is behaviour we need to encourage more often if the Scottish national team is going to get better.
We are on the up as a nation. We may have only sneaked into Euro 2020 by means of the Nations League and consecutive penalty shoot-out victories, but while the tournament itself was a bit of a disappointment, we didn’t disgrace ourselves in what was a tough group involving the eventual finalists, the 2018 World Cup finalists and an up-and-coming Czech Republic team.
The inclusion of Billy Gilmour and Nathan Patterson, two exceptionally talented youngsters with huge futures in the game, showed that the Performance Schools model in working, but we can’t rest on our laurels. We need to be doing more as we’re still well short of our previous standing in international football and, more pertinently, still toiling to match other nations with similar population sizes who aren’t even as daft about the beautiful game as we are.
Football is now a globalised sport, but you’d be hard pressed to see much evidence of that if you looked at Scotland squads from recent years. If our players don’t come from the Scottish Premiership, they come from the top two tiers in English football. This is something which needs to change.
Let’s have a look at Denmark. Population: 5.8 million. Semi-finalists at the Euros. They had only three home-based players in their squad and one of them was the third-choice goalkeeper. How about Croatia? The country we love comparing ourselves to. Seven of their 26 played at home. Then there’s Belgium (two), Portugal (six) and Sweden (three).
Of course, ability plays a role in this. None of our men play for Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Juventus because, with a handful of exceptions (hello Kieran Tierney) they aren’t good enough. But it’s not just a case of getting our footballers out there to test themselves at higher levels. That would be beneficial, of course, but the English Premier League is certainly a higher level, as is the English Championship if we’re comparing the average strength of side to that of the Scottish Premiership. But while there are differences between Scottish and English football, they aren’t all that stark and our cultures are fairly intertwined.
A footballer from Scotland going down south is stepping out of his comfort zone, but not by much. Sign for a team in the north and it’s just a couple of hours before they can be home again, or a one-hour flight from London. Our players are too attached to safety and familiarity. Stepping out into the big bad world helps us grow as people, so why wouldn’t it be the same for football development? We need to be challenged to improve and there’s nothing more challenging than entering into a land where the language and customs are completely against what you’re used to.
A flaw in the colt-teams plan that isn’t brought up enough is the danger of mollycoddling players. In some ways, yes, it would be preferable to have youngsters in a situation where you know those charged with looking after their development have their best interests at heart, and not some lower league boss just desperate for three points on Saturday who doesn’t mind using an 18-year-old burgeoning striker at right wing-back if that’s what it takes. Yet surely fighting, scrapping and doing everything it takes to run through obstacles in your path is the making of an elite athlete?
Turkey were an interesting case prior to this summer’s Euros. Though they were a massive disappointment in their first round exit, they did come in as dark horses having looked very impressive in qualifying after making it only twice in the previous eight international tournaments.
Credited for the improvement in the country’s fortunes was the removal of a limit on foreign players in the national league. This goes against the typical British football mindset that foreign imports are bad for national teams because it blocks younger talents progressing to the first team, but what Turkey discovered was that it made their players hungrier. Almost assured of a decent wage in the top flight if they were any good, homegrown players weren’t pushing themselves enough under the old system. They weren’t being challenged sufficiently and were too happy to sit in a familiar environment. With the rule removed, these guys either had to step up or find work elsewhere, and the national side blossomed as a result. (Note: the Turkish FA brought back foreigner restrictions last summer and the decision was met with widespread derision.)
Croatia, meanwhile, have a culture of teenagers starting in the second tier, then going out on loan to one of the bordering countries to pick up new experiences before coming back to star in the top flight as well-rounded professionals.
These examples don’t suit Scottish football exactly, but encouraging the next generation of talented teenagers to explore the continent is certainly something the Scottish FA should be doing, whether it be through setting up partnerships with other countries or even a few different clubs dotted around Europe. Even if that doesn’t happen, hopefully the likes of Shankland, Hickey and the likes act as trailblazers and make these avenues more attractive for the next generation.