Scotland under-21 boss wary of English raids on young talent

Scotland under-21 head coach Ricky Sbragia. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS
Scotland under-21 head coach Ricky Sbragia. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS
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Convincing young prospects from England with ancestry this side of the Border to play for Scotland has become a key duty for under-21 coach Ricky Sbragia and his under-19 counterpart Scot Gemmill. They are increasingly being thwarted in their efforts to bolster the talent pool available at international level. So much so, Sbragia is considering a stalking horse tactic. “We’re finding that the more we inquire about players, the more England are taking them,” he said. “I said to Scot ‘why don’t we talk about a sh*te player and see if they’ll take them’.”

As Sbragia prepared to name his squad for a double-header that finds the young Scots needing a win in France on Thursday to retain any faint hopes of qualification for the European Under-21 Championship finals in Poland next year, he was still immersed in shaping the international environment in the long-term. Oliver Burke, the Nottingham Forest winger who made Gordon Strachan’s senior squad for the upcoming friendly at home to Denmark, is a success of the English player identification system. Sbragia “tried to get two from big clubs” last week, but the sell is becoming harder.

“Most of the players have come through the 17s, 19s. They’ve been part of the system. Burkey was probably a slightly different one at Forest. That just came out of the blue and that was really down to recruitment. There are three under-16s we’re trying to get. The problem we’re having in general is that whenever we make any roads into speaking to them, England take them. The three are exceptional and we’d love to have them, but it’s becoming more and more difficult. Burkey was a close one. Gordon had seen him and Scot went to see him. We thought we had to act quick, not to tie him up but because he would be an asset for us.

“Because they’re English-born, there’s this thing where they want to play for England – which you can understand,” Sbragia added. “They can come and then transfer back. But if they’ve already played at championship level and come to us, they can’t go back to England. That becomes a problem. So if you have a 17-year-old we want who has played for England, we can’t play him 17s. We must play him under-19s for Scotland. The only way you can get out of that is if they’ve only played friendlies. We bring him in and then he can play 21s for England and transfer.

“We try to be honest and point out they maybe haven’t been picked for the last ten squads, we’ve watched them and they’ve done extremely well. We tell them we’d like them to come, it would be enjoyable, they’d get games – I think that’s extremely important. We encourage them to speak to three or four players we have from England who love it.

“Then I always get a call from the agent. Then I leave it with them. I have to tell them the truth. I tell them the door is closed at England if they come to us. I have to say that. If they came and I hadn’t told them that I wouldn’t feel comfortable.”