Scot Gemmill believes attitude is key as Scotland’s Under-21 footballers head to France for the Toulon Tournament seeking to go further than last year’s surprise third-place finish.
Scotland begin their campaign on Sunday against Ghana in Stade de Lattre in the small town of Aubagne in southern France. They then play hosts France and South Korea over the following six days before hopefully qualifying for the knock-out stage.
Gemmill has challenged the latest group – which has 13 new faces, including Chelsea’s Billy Gilmour and Hearts defender Chris Hamilton, both only 16 – to give all they have in the unforgiving heat as they seek to make their mark.
Gemmill’s side face an uphill task to better, or even match, last year’s performance. They became the first Scotland side of any age group to beat Brazil en route to their third-place finish, losing to England in the semi-finals and then beating Czech Republic 3-0 in the play-off.
“I think it’s about trying to capture that same intensity,” he said. “The players who went last year went with a really proper tournament football attitude. Of course, that should be there every time they represent their country.
“But it’s not always there in young teams, where there can be inconsistency. So it’s about recapturing that intensity and that determination to go there and not be beaten, to not concede goals and to run 14kms in 38 degrees.
“Last year the players answered all those questions,” he said. “Now they’ve got to do it again. Obviously we’ve got 13 new faces, so that’s the challenge to them – to show that they can be trusted to play.”
Older heads such as Oliver Burke, pictured, of West Bromwich Albion, and Dundee’s Craig Wighton will hope to use this stage to place seasons to forget very firmly behind them. They were frustrated for different reasons after shining at the same tournament last year. Burke was a bit-part player as Albion were relegated from the English Premier League and Wighton missed almost the entire season due to a knee ligament injury.
“I think you can apply that to all the players in some context,” said Gemmill. “It is about them using this experience and opportunity, whether it is Oliver Burke or anyone else.
“Craig Wighton has obviously been injured, Mikey Johnston has missed a large part of the season through injury, then you go to the slightly younger ones, like Billy Gilmour and Chris Hamilton – they can all use the tournament for something. It is up to them to go with the correct attitude. That is the key to everything.”
Gemmill took his own chance when drafted into the Scotland squad with Paul Lambert and Craig Burley for the two-match trip to Japan in 1995 after a raft of players had made themselves unavailable.
The midfielder made his debut in the Far East along with Burley and Lambert and went on to win 26 caps. Lambert and Burley, meanwhile, became mainstays of the Scottish midfield for years to come. Now Gemmill sees a new breed of youthful Scots cancelling holidays – and in some cases missing exams – to join up with Scotland squads.
“There are a lot of established players not with the first team (in Peru and Mexico),” he said. “It provides an opportunity for the next ones. If you trace it back historically, I can remember players like Paul Lambert and Craig Burley making their debuts in Japan and I am sure if you trace it back, the established players did not travel or did not make themselves available (on that occasion).
“All of a sudden Burley goes and Lambert goes and they take their chance and play for Scotland for the next ten years. That’s how it works.”
Gemmill claims to not have had any problems regarding the commitment of his charges, from Under-17 level upwards.
“I have always sensed they have been wholly committed – some of the Under-17s at the (Euros) finals were missing exams, which were obviously hugely important in terms of their education,” he recalled.
“But they wanted to be there, they recognised the importance of the occasion and also the opportunity they were being given – the fact that Uefa hold the finals at the same time as the exams is a different conversation.”
Gemmill is grateful Alex McLeish has not plundered his squad following the national team manager’s recruitment difficulties for the games against Peru and Mexico.
“I am sure there was a big discussion about whether Oliver (Burke) should go,” he said. “He was the big one.”
Burke remains, as it stands, and will relish another chance to lead Scotland to glory in France.