Rangers manager Mark Warburton has claimed Scottish international football will remain mired in the doldrums until radical changes are made to the country’s development of young players.
Warburton offered a robust defence of Gordon Strachan’s position as Scotland manager in the wake of Tuesday night’s 3-0 defeat in Slovakia which has significantly diminished prospects of reaching the 2018 World Cup finals.
According to Warburton, who built his own coaching career as a highly regarded youth and academy manager in English football, the SFA face far greater issues than simply finding the right man to take charge of the senior Scotland squad.
He has pointed to a litany of general failure in Scotland’s record at youth international level over the past 20 years, comparing it to the problems Germany faced before they successfully revolutionised their youth development structure following their poor performances at the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship finals.
Referred to as “Das Reboot”, both the Bundesliga and the DFB (German FA) increased investment in the coaching of young players and the level of national and international competition they were exposed to on a regular basis.
Warburton, a consistent critic of Scottish football’s current under-20 development league since he arrived at Rangers in the summer of 2015, believes something similar is required to revive Scotland’s fortunes at international level.
In addition to the senior side’s absence from a major tournament finals since the 1998 World Cup, the under-21s have not reached their European Championship finals since 1996.
The Scotland under-19s have not made a finals tournament since finishing runners-up in the 2006 European Championship. There has been some progress at under-17 level under Scot Gemmill, recently promoted to take charge of the under-21s, with consecutive appearances in the finals of the last three European Championships.
But even at under-16 level, Scotland have struggled with only one Victory Shield success in the last 12 years.
“There is a consistent cycle here,” observed Warburton. “I look at the under-21s, 19s, 17s and to the 16s in the Victory Shield. Who are the players coming through?
“Scotland are not winning or qualifying for tournaments at under-21 or other youth levels. So you can’t not do well in those tournaments and then suddenly have a World Cup qualifying squad.
“It doesn’t work that way. It needs a revamp of the system. Whatever is happening at the moment, it’s not working. That’s the fact of it.
“The key point is qualifying at those age groups, which England have done consistently. Look at their teams from under-17 up to under-21 – some of the players coming through down south have frightening quality.
“I’m not saying that is currently being reflected at senior level with England, but there is a lot of work going into developing players for the system down there.
“If Scotland don’t qualify at the younger age groups, does it suddenly mean they are going to turn into world beaters later on? You have to give the younger players a better chance and better quality of challenge. I’m not sure they are being given the best opportunity at the moment.
“I look at ‘Das Reboot’, the way the Germans changed everything. They took a brave decision, a massive decision – and they’re now reaping the rewards. It’s not going to happen overnight. Scotland are not suddenly going to beat England by five at Wembley next month. But, if it takes two years or three years, at least the foundations are being laid. Don’t sit here in three years’ time and say ‘Oh, we’ve not qualified for the Euros again’.
“I’ve read some of the criticism of Gordon and I think he is a proven manager. He has won trophies, he has managed in the Premier League and is a very good coach. So you have to look a bit deeper than just the manager. There are far bigger problems they have to look at and address.
“I’m not directly involved, this is just my opinion. But I want to see the game do well here.
“I get frustrated when people
say there is no good young Scottish talent.
“I grew up watching Scottish players dominate the leagues down south. Why is that not there now? This is not a dig at Scottish players, far from it. It’s about the development of players and the challenge they are given.”
Warburton helped found the NextGen Series, an under-19 tournament for leading European clubs, in 2011.
It has since been superseded by Uefa’s own Youth League tournament which runs
concurrently with the
Champions League. “That’s my absolute bugbear with it now and I’d like to see it change,” said Warburton.
“As it stands, your club
can have an outstanding
academy and still not get near it because your senior squad are not in the Champions League.
“Young players need to be exposed to international competition at a high
level, not friendly games or our under-20 games here. It can’t be right that the first time a young Scottish centre-half comes up against a player of, say, Sergio Aguero’s ability is at senior level.
“They have to have played against players like that at 16s, 17s, 19s – right the way up – to benefit and learn.
“We have to expose young players to a better quality of challenges. People say ‘yeah, you’re right’ – but nothing gets done about it.”