THERE was no inkling of what was to come when Ricky Sbragia and Billy Stark sat chatting in the Czech Republic. That was less than two weeks ago while they were overseeing an under-18 double-header, but Scotland youth coach Sbragia has been around football long enough to know that change can be swift.
So, while he admits he was shocked at the departure of Stark, who abdicated his under-21 responsibilities on Tuesday, he says he is happy to fill in for the upcoming challenge match against Switzerland in Thun. He won’t be applying for the post full-term, though.
“No, I’m happy where I am. I enjoy looking after the under-19s and under-18s,” said Sbragia. “If I was offered the job I’d have to think about it. But I do enjoy the younger element. I watched a game on Saturday and it was the first senior match I had seen for about a year and a half. Normally I’m watching under-18s, 19s, 20s and 21s.”
It is a period of transition for the Scottish FA, following on from the resignation of Performance Director Mark Wotte, just three years into his revolution process. Sbragia has seen it all before and says that given the restrictions of operating within the international niche market, it is not all that surprising.
“The one thing about international football is you do miss the everyday attachment to a club,” he added. “At international level you’re maybe with the players out on a training pitch only five or six times a year. So you miss the everyday element. Billy and Mark might think they’ve done their bit, laid the foundations, and now it’s time for a little change. Sometimes you look at the bigger picture and think, ‘I’ve done everything I can, I need to move on’.
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“The structure is still in place and things will carry on. It doesn’t just stop, there’s a continuation in place. Mark put in the foundations extremely well and planned what he thought was right for Scottish football. Billy’s a respected man. I’ve a lot of time for him and I’m sad to see him go. He’s made the decision that he thinks it’s the right time for him to go. Whoever comes in will have to share the philosophy for Scottish football and how best to take the game forward.”
That will be the issue facing Scottish football’s hierarchy now. Sbragia says that tinkering with the current system will not be a problem but wholesale upheaval would undermine the progress he feels has already been made. The joined-up thinking is one reason that Sbragia has been able to step into Stark’s shoes so seamlessly. He knows the players, he knows the set-up and having chatted at length with Stark, he knew who to select for the U21 squad.
“[While we were in Czech Republic] we spoke about what was coming up, as we have always done. We spoke about the fixtures ahead. We used to have a chat about what Billy wants in the team. It was just a normal conversation we had. Billy assisted me for two games over in the Czech Republic and it was just a normal week with a double-header. We spoke about things, looking well ahead – and actually about next year as well.”
Stark is rumoured to be in the running for the vacant Motherwell job but Sbragia said that had not been the focus of the conversations the pair have shared since Stark handed in his notice. “I spoke to him this morning on the phone and then again this afternoon about the game situation – what his ideas were for the team and the video work done from the Swiss and Latvia game, he said. “It was a case of just trying to find out what had been put in place and also to pick his brain on what he was thinking.”
What the stand-in manager is keen to do is give every player in his young and inexperienced squad a taste of action in Switzerland. Aware of the abilities of many involved, having watched them traverse the various age groups on their way through the international ranks, he says the onus on the coaches is to ensure they keep developing.
There is evidence of that in the men’s team, with the likes of Ryan Gauld offered an insight into the demands on the game’s elite in the recent Euro qualifiers, while Lewis Macleod was named in Gordon Strachan’s squad for the upcoming fixtures against the Republic of Ireland and England. “I think Lewis is an exceptionally good player,” said Sbragia of the Rangers youngster. “He has always been very consistent for me at every level. He is very professional in what he does and he knows exactly what he wants. I think that is really important.
“I sent him a text last night saying he thoroughly deserved the call-up. He sent one back saying ‘thanks’ and that was that. But I think it is great for him to move up and train at a different level. Lewis has been brought up right and that is down to Rangers as well. The club have brought him up well on that mentality side of it so I think he’ll deal with everything. If there’s a situation where he comes back down a level again then he’ll deal with that situation as well.
“It’s part of football to cope with all these things but, from his point of view, what has happened this week is great news.”
SCOTLAND UNDER-21 SQUAD
Ryan Fulton (Liverpool)
Jack Hamilton (Hearts)
Jonathan Henly (Reading)*
Stuart Findlay (Celtic)
Stephen Hendrie (Hamilton)
Dominic Hyam (Reading)
Jordan McGhee (Hearts)
Callum Paterson (Hearts)
Jay Fulton (Swansea City)
Adam King (Swansea City)
Cameron King (Norwich City)
John McGinn (St Mirren)
Sam Nicholson (Hearts)
Craig Slater (Kilmarnock)
Harry Cardwell (Reading)
Ryan Christie (Inverness CT)
Ryan Fraser (Bournemouth)
Ryan Gauld (Sporting)
Declan McManus (Aberdeen)**
* on loan at Welling United
** on loan at Morton
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