IT MAY not be possible for Celtic to field a full-strength side when they face Aberdeen in the final of the SFA Youth Cup at McDiarmid Park on Friday.
Even at youth level, then, the parameters operated within by those at Celtic and Aberdeen are altogether different. So, too, are the expected fruits of those whose task it is to unearth talents good enough to be future senior mainstays. It was in 1994 that Willie McStay became Celtic’s head of youth development. In the intervening nine years, none of the home-grown products coming under his charge have gone on to cement regular first-team status, with Mark Burchill and, now, Shaun Maloney coming closest to achieving this feat.
The contrasts between McStay and his Pittodrie counterpart, Neil Cooper, are marked. The Aberdeen youth and under-21 coach was more than a decade in his development post before leaving in 1999. Cooper returned in January to find the Aberdeen first team crammed with those he had guided since their early teens. Yet it would be wrong to extrapolate from this that Celtic’s player-rearing system is falling short when set against the one in place at Aberdeen.
"I think it would be universally acknowledged that the standards our boys must meet to make the breakthrough with the Old Firm are much higher," McStay contends. "Any other club in the country would love to have our crop of youth players but these guys are bidding to nudge out players capable of reaching a European final. This says everything about what’s being asked of our youngsters."
Celtic wrapped up the Youth League title yesterday but they will not forget their blip last week when Aberdeen beat them 2-1 at Pittodrie, their first victory over McStay’s men this season.
In their youth captain, Paul Lawson - an Aberdeen lad who is brother-in-law of the Pittodrie side’s Russell Anderson - Craig Beattie, Ross Wallace, Steven Low, Gary Irvine and David Pinkowski, Celtic have a clutch of players capped by Scotland at youth level recently. In addition, 18-year-old left winger Wallace and Marshall have both appeared in senior squads for their club. Unusually, too, they have been feted by their manager, Martin O’Neill, a man decidedly reluctant to talk up the prospects of youngsters.
In the red corner, Aberdeen hopefuls Scott Morrison, Richard Foster, Stephen Tarditi and Michele Lombardi have all come to the attention of the selectors at international level. Left-back Morrison, indeed, was called up to Rainer Bonhof’s under-21 training camp in January and, along with bustling striker Foster, is fully expected to make the step-up to Steve Paterson’s senior side on a permanent basis. However, those who follow the Pittodrie side are concerned that the current batch of youths are not of the same calibre as was true of the recent past.
A couple of years ago Anderson, Phil McGuire, Kevin McNaughton, Darren Mackie and Fergus Tiernan, among others, came through the Aberdeen production line. Indeed, 15 of the current 26-man senior Aberdeen squad are home-grown. However, this might be thought less of a boast given the struggles of the first team this season, a contention disputed by Cooper. "When these players initially came into the first-team picture, the club earned a top-six place and I think that it is possible to attain that every year by making sure that there is a conveyor belt of talent, as there was when I was a player at the club in the 1980s," he says.
Celtic and Aberdeen last met in the final of the Youth Cup two years ago, that encounter won by the Pittodrie side. Over the 18 years the tournament has been contested, Aberdeen have claimed three wins to the six achieved by Celtic, who have annexed the trophy twice as many times as any other club. Three of these successes have come under McStay, and the Celtic coach points out that a number of those in the team who triumphed in 1999 have indeed made genuine inroads to carving out senior careers. "Jamie Smith, Stephen Crainey, Colin Healy, and Mark Burchill all played then and now Smith and Crainey have been involved in an incredible UEFA Cup run for the club this season," he notes. "This is an acceptable strike rate for a club scaling such heights, and with our youth team a very young one just now, we have many players who have time on their side to reach the necessary level."
For Aberdeen, a number of players proving themselves at Pittodrie have then made the choice to further their careers away from the north-east. Darren and Derek Young, key squad members for the club, are the latest in this category. The twins last week announced they would be leaving in the summer. It does not leave Cooper though feeling his bonce is being knocked against a brick wall.
"I have known the Youngs since they were 10, and it is frustrating to see good players leave but that is the way it sometimes must be with the financial restrictions the club must operate within," Cooper says. "Freedom of contract might mean there is no monetary compensation for losses like these, but their departures open up the way for others to step up and I believe we have young players capable of filling the gaps."
These players will be given opportunities by necessity, and allowed to make mistakes at first-team level as they learn their trade. Conversely, the necessity of Celtic to avoid errors at all costs in the senior domain means the youngsters in green and white who pit themselves against Aberdeen on Friday won’t ever be so fortunate.