PFA Scotland wonderkids can be 2034 World Cup stars as young player award marks 10 years since Andy Robertson

Four nominees in the running a decade after current Scotland skipper lifted same trophy

The year is 2034 and Scotland have qualified for another World Cup. Derek McInnes – who took over after Steve Clarke bowed out following a successful trip to North America eight years earlier – is preparing to select his squad for the latest finals, which are being held in Saudi Arabia.

Despite concerns about the heat, Saudi officials have managed to convince Fifa that their air-conditioned stadiums in Jeddah, Riyadh, Ha’il and elsewhere can accommodate a summer World Cup.

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McInnes is not averse to a spot of sunshine but has more concerns about his players, whose welfare means the world to him. He is particularly close to one of his charges. They go back a long way.

PFA Scotland Young player of the Year nominees David Watson (Kilmarnock), Lyle Cameron (Dundee), Ross McCausland (Rangers) and Lennon Miller (Motherwell).PFA Scotland Young player of the Year nominees David Watson (Kilmarnock), Lyle Cameron (Dundee), Ross McCausland (Rangers) and Lennon Miller (Motherwell).
PFA Scotland Young player of the Year nominees David Watson (Kilmarnock), Lyle Cameron (Dundee), Ross McCausland (Rangers) and Lennon Miller (Motherwell).

He gave the captain's armband to David Watson just before qualifying began after the midfielder had finally consolidated himself in the Manchester City first team. Much was and is expected of the 29-year-old midfielder, who burst onto the scene under McInnes at his first club Kilmarnock and has just lifted the English title at City, their 14th in a row. The world stage is what he’s been waiting for since getting a taste for the high life when being named by his fellow professionals as the best young player in Scotland in 2024.

All this might sound like a beguiling daydream. However, it's not completely fanciful. Let’s have a flashback to ten years ago this month. Celtic are en route to winning the Scottish title by 29 points from Motherwell, Hearts and Hibs will make it an Edinburgh double by being relegated and Andy Robertson is preparing to step up to lift the PFA Scotland young player of the year award after a superb first season in the Scottish Premiership with Dundee United.

He is 20-years-old. At the point, he had played just 39 matches for the Tannadice side with a Scottish Cup final against St Johnstone to come. A star in the making. He was quickly whisked off to England, where he shone for Hull City before joining Liverpool. While it took longer to establish himself at Anfield than he might have liked, he is now among the best left backs in the world. Now 30, he will shortly lead Scotland out at the opening game of Euro 2024 against Germany, fitness permitting.

Of course, not every player who wins the PFA Scotland young player of the year award goes on to play for Scotland, let alone captains them.

Kilmarnock's David Watson celebrates scoring to make it 5-2 over St Mirren last month. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)Kilmarnock's David Watson celebrates scoring to make it 5-2 over St Mirren last month. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)
Kilmarnock's David Watson celebrates scoring to make it 5-2 over St Mirren last month. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

Graeme Payne, the inaugural winner, never did, although the Dundee United winger was in the provisional squad of 40 announced for the 1978 World Cup that same summer. But most of those who qualify to play for Scotland do, including Kieran Tierney – three times winner between 2016 and 2018 – and Leigh Griffiths, honoured in 2013.

A Scot has won only once in the last four years - Celtic's David Turnbull was the last, with Liel Abada and Malik Tillman recognised in the two most recent years.

It's possible that a Scot won't win this year - Ross McCausland, Rangers' Northern Irish winger, is in the frame. Given he already has a League Cup in the bag after starting that afternoon against Aberdeen, the 20-year-old Ibrox star might be considered something of a front-runner.

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But it’s sure to be a tight call. Kilmarnock’s Watson, Dundee's Lyall Cameron and Lennon Miller, the skilful Motherwell midfielder, are also in the mix.

Lennon Miller has been a key player for Motherwell this season at the age of just 17. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)Lennon Miller has been a key player for Motherwell this season at the age of just 17. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)
Lennon Miller has been a key player for Motherwell this season at the age of just 17. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)

All have several qualities to commend them, not least staying power. It’s now May and all four are in line to play key roles for their teams this weekend at the end of a long, hard season.

Still only 17, Miller has made the fewest appearances of the four and yet will still make it past 30 appearances by the end of this campaign, which is remarkable for a player operating where he does, in the thick of it in midfield, and who also missed three months due to a broken patella.

PFA Scotland chief executive Fraser Wishart clocked up nearly 200 games for the Fir Park club but will be a neutral observer in his role as head of the top table on Sunday night at the awards dinner in a Glasgow city centre hotel.

Graeme Souness will be sitting alongside Wishart, with the former Scotland skipper due to be recognised with a special merit award. "It's apt that three nominees for young player of the year are midfielders given one of the country's best-ever players in that position will be in attendance," said Wishart.

Ross McCausland lifted the Viaplay Cup with Rangers in December.  (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)Ross McCausland lifted the Viaplay Cup with Rangers in December.  (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)
Ross McCausland lifted the Viaplay Cup with Rangers in December. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

The 19-year-old Watson's showreel is bound to catch Souness' eye. The stunning half-volley on the turn against Aberdeen at Pittodrie to secure a last-minute winner and another last-ditch goal against Celtic at Parkhead, this time via a header. A half-volley finish whiplashed into the net against St Johnstone, and then, most recently, the dazzling run from his own half before finishing coolly past St Mirren goalkeeper Zach Hemming, the icing on the cake of Kilmarnock's 5-2 comeback victory.

Watson's shushing of the away supporters behind the goal while celebrating will no doubt draw a smile from Souness, who always liked those with the extra edge that he had.

Someone else who is appreciating Watson's talents is former Kilmarnock skipper David Mackinnon, who will be watching the midfielder against Rangers at Ibrox this weekend as co-commentator for Killie TV. "He reminds me a lot of Lewis Ferguson, because I was at Hamilton (as media and communications director) when Lewis was there," said the former full-back. "Lewis was a similar type of player; he had confidence in his own ability, not overtly so. You just knew when he was on the ball he was thinking beyond his years. And that is what Watson is like. He has a football brain that’s ahead of his years. Not a lot of young players have that."

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Wishart agrees and believes all four deserve praise for shining in a tough testing ground. The nature of the league set-up - few games are meaningless - inevitably cranks up the pressure. Cameron, for example, is expected to be in the heart of the Dundee midfield this afternoon against St Mirren in a veritable cup final at Dens Park as both teams chase fifth spot and Europe.

"It is such a tough environment," pointed out Wishart. "There are very few young players playing from the start in Scotland never mind players who are eligible for Scotland of any age, so I think coming through at such a young age has to be applauded.

“Lennon and David are young, they are not 21 or 22. They are 17 and 19. The level for us is if a player is 21 or under on the first day of the season then they are eligible. Looking at David and Lennon, they have all done particularly well to come in and hold their own at such a young age.

“It is not just about their skills and ability, but also physically they are ready and mentally too. Scottish football is a tough environment, there’s pressure in every game."

Like when he was a full-back, for St Mirren and Rangers as well as Motherwell among others, Wishart is good at giving nothing away. He probably already knows who’s won. He stresses that he has appreciated the talents of all four while covering games for Radio Clyde. Indeed, he will be watching Miller this weekend against Livingston.

“None of them have looked out of place at any time,” he said. “They are all seasoned professionals, which is a compliment to them. I am 5ft 9in myself and during my career I probably did not make it as far as I could have because I wasn’t tall. It pleases me to see Lyall come in and not look out of place. It is one of the few benefits of getting relegated sometimes, younger lads come in and get a chance earlier. Lyall was outstanding last year and was nominated for player of the year in the Championship.

“They all have different attributes these players,” he added. “I love Lyall’s forward thinking. Everything is done in a positive manner. David Watson is very similar in the way he plays. They like to get into the last third and have added goals to their game at the top level. There is enthusiasm and positivity in their play. Lennon is a slightly different player. He tends to sit more behind the ball coming onto the game. Again, for someone who is still only 17, his physicality is good. He reads the game so well for a young player.”

Miller operates in a key position, just in front of the back four – or five, depending on what system Motherwell are playing. “Sometimes young players in centre-back areas and centre midfield, where there is a real responsibility on them, don’t get that early chance but Lennon has come in and given the team stability,” noted Wishart. “They did suffer when he was not playing. There’s maybe no coincidence that when he came back their stability returned and they climbed back up the table.”

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This seems a remarkable influence for a teenager to have on a top-flight team. Miller’s highlights reel during tomorrow’s dinner will contain an outstanding bit of skill when he left Callum McGregor needing to pay to get back in before setting up Blair Spittal for the opening goal in February's 3-1 defeat to Celtic. Cameron, meanwhile, can enjoy watching his instinctive lob from near the halfway line in Dundee's win over St Johnstone again in the company of his teammates and manager Tony Docherty, who has been nominated in the managers category. On-loan Liverpool full back Owen Beck is also making the journey north having returned to Merseyside last month due to injury.

Cameron is the oldest of the quartet and is the most established in an international sense after scoring twice in four games for Scotland Under-21s in their European Championship qualifying group. Under-19 player Watson will surely join him in the squad by the end of his campaign, as might international teammate Miller.

Sadly neither Billy Stark or Scot Gemmill, managers of the Under 19s and 21s respectively, can utilise the talents of McCausland, who was brought up in Antrim and signed for Rangers from Linfield. The 20-year-old has already made his bow for the Northern Ireland senior team.

“Rangers have got a terrific player on their hands,” manager Michael O’Neill told me in March when we met in a restaurant in Edinburgh’s New Town a fortnight before Scotland played Northern Ireland at Hampden. It wasn’t a million miles away from where O’Neill recalled watching McCausland play for Rangers B side against Spartans.

“He scored that day,” he recalled. “We had a couple of young lads, a young centre back Lewis MacKinnon and a young midfielder Charlie Lindsay. They are both back in the Irish league now (Mackinnon is at Carrick Rangers, Lindsay is on loan at Glentoran from Derby County).”

Fellow Northern Irishman Steven Davis handed McCausland his chance against St Mirren in October after Michael Beale was sacked. The winger has not looked back.

O’Neill noted how well he played in the Old Firm game in December, when he was trusted with all 90 plus minutes by manager Philippe Clement.

“He was arguably Rangers’ best player," he said. "I thought he did really well in the cup final as well. Clearly the manager trusts him because he plays a lot. And unusually for a wide player, he finishes a lot of games – nowadays they are the ones who are playing 70-20 a lot of the time. He has been involved in a lot of Rangers goals, maybe not the final assist pass but in a lot of the play.

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“He has great vision and he is a great mover of the ball. He passes it well when he is running with the ball, he slides people in when he is in the final third. He doesn’t just cross it, he picks people out.”

O’Neill and Northern Ireland will gain the benefit from this rather than Scotland - maybe it’s just as well McCausland was injured when the countries played. Still, O'Neill's team proved that night that it can pay to place trust in youth, with Liverpool's 20-year-old full-back Conor Bradley scoring the winning goal.

With a new international cycle preparing to start after this summer's European Championship finals, it might be nearing the time for Scotland to try something similar.



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