Billy Stark is not the sort of person to ever get unduly carried away which makes him perfect for dealing with the capricious world of international youth football.
A hugely experienced and respected coach, Stark notes the acclaim that has greeted his Scotland under-19 side’s victory over Germany on Tuesday night, a result that helped them finish first in their European Championship qualifying group. The young Scots now head into the draw for the next stage of the process – the Elite Round – as one of the top seeds.
Stark, pictured below, would never downplay the achievements of his squad and believes the 1-0 win at Firhill – courtesy of Josh McPake’s goal – was well merited.
Having been around this scene for more years than he probably cares to remember, however, the former Scotland under-21 boss is too measured to make predictions about the future of the game on the back of one result, no matter how impressive.
“The players were able to implement our game plan perfectly against Germany and got their rewards,” said Stark. “It was close run as you would expect against a country like that, but I felt the win was definitely merited.
“And it’s a big scalp for us. Germany beat England last month and drew with Spain which demonstrates their quality. The players can all take immense credit from what they have achieved.
“It’s always nice to be talking about a positive result. If we jump all over everything any time one of our teams has a defeat where people think we ought to have done better, then, if we get a significant win, then it’s fair enough to go the other way and make a big deal of it.
“But you can’t really make any major forecasts on the back of one game. What we’re looking for is consistency of results over the piece. That makes any judgement a lot easier.”
History suggests Stark is right to be cautious. The under-19s found themselves in this exact scenario a year ago after passing through the first qualifying phase with two wins and a draw. The Elite Round is as demanding, though, as the name suggests, and wins over Turkey and Cyprus weren’t enough to clinch the solitary qualifying spot after a final matchday defeat to hosts Portugal.
With only eight teams featuring in the finals every year, it is perhaps not a surprise that the Scots haven’t made that stage since 2006 when they reached the final against Spain and qualified for the under-20 World Cup the following year.
There are mitigating factors, though, as Stark points out. It is not uncommon for players to be fast-tracked from the under-21 squad in to the senior team as required, causing a domino effect down the age levels. Billy Gilmour, for example, the highly-rated Chelsea forward, did not feature for the under-19s in this tournament despite being eligible as he has established himself in Scot Gemmill’s plans at under-21 level. Losing key players for big matches often comes with consequences.
“That should be factored in when people talk about us not qualifying for championships at youth level,” he added. “People seem to not want to include that. They just want to be negative which is just how it is sometimes.
“But it does happen a lot. It the big team needs or wants under-21 players, then they usually get them. And rightly so.
“It’s a similar story down the ranks. We’ve lost someone like Billy Gilmour to the under-21s and he’s completely ready for that level, so there’s no problem with that.
“But we were able to include six players born in 2002 who will still be eligible at under-19 level again next year. And sometimes getting longer to work with a player can be beneficial in the long run.”
Many of the 19-man squad that performed so well in 2006 are now coming towards the end of their football careers.
Only five went on to represent the senior Scotland side – Lee Wallace, Garry Kenneth, Steven Fletcher, Robert Snodgrass and Graham Dorrans – while Michael McGlinchey switched allegiances and was capped by New Zealand.
How many of the current group progress to win full Scotland caps remains to be seen but Stark believes playing regular club football is key.
“The jump to the senior team can be made easier with players getting more first-team football,” he explained. “If you go back to the so-called good old days you had players featuring regularly, including for many of the bigger clubs.
“Now with the money involved there is a pressure on clubs to make big signings and bring other players in. So the best pathway for younger players is to get experience, even out on loan, as that can make a big difference when it comes to the step-up to the full squad.”