IT IS rumoured that Blue Heaven, the recently screened BBC series charting the progress of Rangers’ hopefuls, was originally planned as a behind-the-scenes look at the youth set-ups of both Old Firm clubs.
Celtic, however, declined the corporation’s request for access because they felt their less-than-salubrious Barrowfield training ground would look small-fry and second-rate in comparison to the impressive Murray Park. This, in turn, might just represent the only tangible advantage the complex has given the Ibrox side over their rivals.
When the facility opened at Auchenhowie two-and-a-half years ago, it was championed as an instant panacea for recurring fitness problems at senior level and difficulties in producing home-grown talent. Yet in recent months, as Rangers supporters have scrambled around for any signs that the future may prove less grievous than the present, their club have been racking up injuries as Celtic have appeared to be racking up youngsters with genuine potential.
Chilling for those of an Ibrox disposition, it seems doubtful that their club could look within for the means to topple their ancient adversaries over the next few years. While Liam Miller’s loss to Manchester United in the summer will deprive Celtic of their most gifted prospect, in Shaun Maloney, Ross Wallace, Craig Beattie - discarded by the Ibrox club - and John Kennedy, they have a clutch of fresh-faced performers who are now senior squad regulars on merit. Only the lively Chris Burke is in a similar position across the city. And for good reason, with other decent prospects Allan Hutton, Andy Dowie and Steven MacLean deemed still too raw.
"Barrowfield might be shabby while Murray Park is superb, but this hasn’t stopped Celtic’s young players being better prepared for the first team than the same age group at Rangers," a source close to the Ibrox club says. "But now is not the time to judge the facility. There is no question that Rangers have been able to attract players of better quality since it opened, and that these are provided with the best of everything. But they are now only aged 13 and 14. It will take three or four years yet for dividends to be seen."
Any perceived gap between the Old Firm clubs in terms of player-rearing could just close before then, though. In the under-21 league, Celtic are out of sight through having opened up a 23-point gap on third-placed Rangers, who have three games in hand. But at 19s level, the Ibrox side are two points in front of their Old Firm rivals, despite having played a game fewer. Even at this age group, however, there have been more murmurs over Celtic stand-outs Aiden McGeady and Michael Gardyne than has been true of Rangers’ likely lads Ross McCormack and Bob Davidson.
Indeed, Celtic remain convinced that, while their facilities leave much to be desired -despite the addition of an all-weather surface and another full-sized pitch at Barrowfield -their "programme" does not.
"You do not judge a school by the building in which it is housed but what is taught there and the academic standards achieved by its pupils," a Celtic insider says. "When it comes to these aspects, I believe Rangers are playing catch-up with us. And they would seem to know that, what with the personnel changes in their backroom set-up at youth level over recent years. But Murray Park will prove a good investment. It has a visual impact that can sell Rangers to potential signings more than we can sell our club to them with talk of good coaching programmes."
Celtic claim their youth development scheme is the largest and most far-reaching in Scotland, the budget for it tripling in the past year alone. In this respect, they may actually be benefiting from not having to service an all-encompassing training complex, even if it is the Celtic plc board’s unwillingness to part with a sum like the 14m Rangers forked out on Murray Park which accounts for this being so.
For in announcing the appointment of George Adams as Rangers’ head of youth development last March, the club’s chairman John McClelland pledged that 10m would be spent over the next five years on youth development and the upkeep of Murray Park. This seemed to allow for a consequential sum being invested in nurturing talent. Until it emerged that Auchenhowie’s running costs are around 1.5m a year.
Creating the environment in which prospects will prosper does not necessarily come down to bricks and mortar, however. In general, it has been easy for Celtic’s youngsters to slot in, since they are not expected to make the running in a winning team brimming with confidence. The opposite would be true were Alex McLeish ever to dare throw in a couple of largely untried performers at once. They would be expected to plug holes in a ship springing leaks from all angles.
In addition, Celtic may have more first-team possibles coming to the fore because, since the turn of the millennium, they have enjoyed a degree of continuity in their youth set-up that has been denied to Rangers. For Adams represents the third holder of the head of youth development post at the Ibrox club in four years, following on from Jan Derks and Tommy McLean, who has been in charge of the under-18s for the past eight months.
This demotion followed an overhaul by McLeish that brought the departure of under-21 coach John McGregor, his place taken by John Brown, previously with the under-18s.
By contrast, following on from Tommy Burns becoming Celtic’s head of youth development in June 2000, Kenny McDowall and Willie McStay have been constants overseeing the club’s under-21s and under-18s respectively, McStay having clocked up a decade’s service for the club at youth level.
"Managerial changes can put young players’ development on hold and that might be part of Dick Advocaat’s legacy," says a Rangers source. "He demanded a training complex and his man Derks in a key position and yet inside two years he was gone. It meant the club basically having to start from scratch."
This the Ibrox club may remain itchy about for some time to come.