When scouts from clubs across Europe pitched up at the Oriam Sports Performance Centre in Edinburgh six weeks ago, the headline attraction of the Victory Shield tournament was 13-year-old Celtic prodigy Karamoko Dembele.
Just as the Scottish champions wrestle with the difficulty of retaining the services of such a highly-rated young talent in the face of interest from English Premier League academies and beyond, so Rangers now face the prospect of losing one of the most gifted prospects to emerge from their youth system in recent years.
Billy Gilmour, the 15-year-old playmaker, was the star turn for the Scottish under-16 squad in those Victory Shield fixtures and his rich potential has not gone unnoticed.
Chelsea head a list of suitors for Gilmour who, it is understood, has already been given a tour of the club’s facilities. He cannot sign a professional contract until his 16th birthday next June and Rangers remain hopeful he will commit the formative years of his senior career to them.
But with money no object for Chelsea, it will simply be no contest in the eyes of Gilmour and his family if they base their decision on financial considerations. Rangers manager Mark Warburton recognises that reality and can only turn to other factors in his bid to keep Gilmour on board.
First-team opportunities will clearly come along sooner at Ibrox for a player who has already made his debut for the club’s under-20 side, making his first start at that level in a development league fixture against Dundee last week.
Warburton fears that if Gilmour heads to the Premier League, he could effectively be lost for several years in a system which rarely sees teenagers afforded a clear route into regular first-team football.
The case of Scotland under-21 international Islam Feruz, who snubbed a professional contract at Celtic in 2011 to join Chelsea, is testament to that scenario. Now 21, Feruz remains on Chelsea’s books but is now on his fourth loan spell at Mouscron in Belgium after previous less-than-fulfilling stints at OFI Crete, Blackpool and Hibs.
Chelsea are believed to be willing to offer Rangers £500,000 now to beat off other competition, while a training compensation fee of around half of that figure would be payable next summer.
“You are hopeful Billy can see the pathway to the first team here at Rangers,” said Warburton. “You look at the competition at Premier League clubs and how hard it is for young players to get into their respective first teams. It is incredibly difficult. What a talent you have got to be to get into a top-six Premier League team. I don’t know what the average age, probably Spurs aside, of the boys making their debuts at Premier League level is. Maybe 22, 23? It is a huge ask. I like to think we can keep him here, develop him and he can play in the first team. If in three or four years time he gets a move, then good luck to him.
“Billy is a talented player and I’m sure many clubs are looking at him. Big clubs have vast scouting networks covering that age group. You cannot compete with them financially. If the boy wants to go, then all the club can do is seek the best financial deal.
“But right now, he is a Rangers player and our job is to show him the pathway there is to get to the first team. We just have to be honest about it. We can offer him a pathway here. Young Liam Burt came on against Hearts last Saturday. He is 17 and he can see a pathway to the Rangers first team. That has got to be our selling point. He has come through the Academy, he supports the club and the challenge is to go and play in the first team. I am not saying there is not a pathway down south, but it is incredibly difficult.”
Warburton, though, has rejected any notion of accelerating Gilmour’s promotion to the first team in a bid to influence his decision.
“We have got to be realistic here,” he added. “The boy is 15. I watched him for our 20s last week, he did remarkably well, but he is 15. He is a very good player but there are also health and safety issues here. Last week, he was up against guys at 6ft 3ins. It was like a Fawlty Towers sketch.
“The fact is, he can handle a football, he is a very talented player and one of many coming through. The pathway is for him to stay at Rangers. All we can be is honest. At the end of the day, parents a ren’t stupid. If they say ‘can you match that wage packet?’ then no, I can’t. But I can offer you this pathway.”