Livingston's golden generation

Plenty of work has gone in - past and present - to nurture some of the club's most talented players.

WHEN Bill Hunter took Meadowbank Thistle west to Livingston, not only was a new club born, but a coaching ethos was developed that would, with patience, produce some of the finest young footballers Scotland has seen in recent years.

The likes of Graham Dorrans and Robert Snodgrass are now household names, at least among keen followers of Scottish and English football, with Dorrans starring for West Bromwich Albion in the English Premier League and Snodgrass orchestrating the attacks at Leeds United in an effort to join him in England's elite, by making it two promotions in a row for the Yorkshire giants.

Others to flourish and then graduate from the school of footballing science in West Lothian include Leigh Griffiths, now at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Middlesbrough's Andrew Halliday, Coventry City's James McPake and St Johnstone's Murray Davidson.

Then of course, there are those four stars developed from youth at Livingston - Martin Scott, Scott Boyd, Richard Brittain and Gary Millar - who played such an important role in getting Ross County into the last season's Scottish Cup Final, where they knocked out Hibs and then Celtic in the semi-final, before running out of steam against Dundee United.

Down the years, many other players have graduated to not only make good, solid professionals, but also win honours, including numerous Scotland caps and a UEFA Cup final appearance. Robert Douglas is the most notable example.

One man who has been behind most is Livingston chief scout Jim McArthur, who is still there, putting in the hours and the miles to discover the next generation of superstars.

McArthur, however, insists finding gems is not the result of a lucky strike, but rather a concerted effort to mine the purest footballing talent from around the Central Belt.

He remembers: "The Glasgow satellite I put in place with scouts Alec Gordon and Willie Melville worked so we could bring in loads of boys from the West to play boys from the East. My job was to cream off the best but sometimes I could get it wrong. James McArthur, the recent Scotland cap, was one. At that time I did not fancy him, such was the standard we had."

Overseeing it all initially was Jim Leishman, the Lions former manager, who took the club from the Third Division to the SPL and first recruited McArthur. Then there was Mark Proctor, now back as head of youth at Middlesbrough, who, when managing Livingston, nurtured the burgeoning talents of Halliday, Griffiths, Davidson and Keaghan Jacobs, throwing the latter three into the first team while the club was operating under a player recruitment embargo imposed after a contract wrangle with former player Emmanuel Dorado.

Leishman, the current, director of football at Dunfermline, can look back with pleasure at what was achieved, saying: "It gives me great pride to see those lads now - they all deserve their success. Back then Livi were a new club and we had big plans. We got Tony Taylor in to set up the youth policy and, with Jim McArthur, the whole thing took off."

Snodgrass and Dorrans were spotted playing for boys' clubs in Glasgow, Griffiths was recruited from Edinburgh's Hutchison Vale, McPake was playing boys' football in Lanarkshire.

Former Livi youth coach, Graeme Robertson, said: "I remember Snoddy and Dorrans used to drive in from Glasgow with another friend, Gary Millar, now at Ross County. Sometimes they were late, didn't want to train. But we knew they were such great talents, we used to play along with them. Give them a ball and they came to life. But they needed to be schooled.

"Livi had great coaches, Alan Preston, Alec Cleland, Archie Knox. They all helped bring players through." Another was Paul Connolly - now back at the club - the Under-19 coach who brought in Andrew Halliday and Leigh Griffiths.

And McArthur recalls: "The length of time people like Dorrans and Snodgrass were at the club is testament to the coaching and development at Livingston FC. Our success at nurturing their talent, looking after them and making them the best they could be, shows what we are all about.

"It wasn't by accident that they stayed with us. We cared for their development. We watched them grow to become exceptional talents and hot property.

"Getting them to sign schoolboy forms was essential because it meant they couldn't be tempted to go elsewhere. Some boys get their heads turned by big clubs; by the thought of going to England and playing in the Premier League and I have seen a lot of talent sacrificed by greed.

"Everybody was looking at Robert when he was 12. He was the hard one to sign. I tried six times before he agreed. He had big clubs from England interested. So we got him and Graham on S Forms as soon as we could, but it was seven years before they made the breakthrough. Dorrans lived in Snoddy's shadow for six or seven years and then he prospered.

"It's a good job when you have players coming through but it is tough when you have to tell a lad he's not what wanted. It's very hard to tell them that. But, if they are good enough they will come through the levels."

S Forms - which ensured other clubs could not poach youngsters - have been replaced by pro youth contracts which are renewed each year, which gives even very young players freedom to move, but, according to McArthur, therein lies a danger.

"You now get agents trying to turn youngsters' heads with promises of riches and big clubs, but it can quickly go wrong. Kids have to learn about winning. Development and winning go hand in hand.

"It takes time and patience to develop young players and you have to be very careful. It's like owning a racehorse; you can't expect to just throw any horse into the Grand National, they have to be schooled correctly and you have to monitor their progress to make sure they are right."

However, just two years ago, when chairman Gordon McDougall and chief executive Ged Nixon rescued the club from oblivion, they had to start all over again.

McArthur said: "They inherited nothing. We lost all our kids from under-15s down and our rival clubs took them all. We had to build from the roof down this time, getting our 17s and 19s going again while looking for new stars."

The future at Livingston, however, is bright. The Under-19s, coached by former Hibs defender Brian Welsh, look like making it a fourth league title on the trot, while they face Celtic in their Scottish Cup semi-final.

And new faces are starting to make their mark on the first team - highly regarded individuals like Mark McNulty, Steven Scougall, David Sinclair and Chris Malone, who have all come through the youth system.

"The future is looking good. I have a great rapport with Brian Welsh, the head of youth. When Gordon McDougall took over at Livingston he was soon on the phone to Dunfermline wanting me back. When he said Brian Welsh was joining Livi I decided to come. Brian is wonderful with the kids and great to work with. When you have that rapport everything works better.

"The first thing I did was to bring Steven Scougall back. And do you know why he came? Because of Livi's history and because he knew he would get a chance in the first team if he did well. We don't hold them back once we think they are ready to step up.

"But this is not about myself, it's about Bill Hunter and Dominic Keane's futuristic dream - that a virgin club like Livingston could produce such a fantastic youth development structure.

"The current owners are just clawing themselves both from the Third Division where they found themselves with no fault of their own. Because of that SFA decision, it mean our Under-13s through to Under-17s were omitted from their leagues, we then became victims of our own success. Other clubs jumped on the bandwagon and plundered our whole Youth System."So in fact, the current owner had inherited nothing as it was. They had to start to again but this time, unlike Hunter and Keane, and the Tony Taylor regime, there was no foundation. Brian Welsh had to start at the roof and work down - not up.

"We have done well in only a year but only now we can go on and work properly on 15s, 14s, and 13s in the coming months. We have signed some smashing prospects in the last year, so much so that bigger clubs have re-appeared at our youth games.

"But working from the top has its pitfalls. Our failure rate in these age groups is high until we establish our structure to its former state. Remember, working from the bottom up meant Dorrans, Snoddy and others at 13 were given five to six years to develop. Our current crop will not get that time. As Brian's first priority is Under-19s who are our reserves and that path to the first team must be kept clear, so our priority has been Under-11s, Under-17s, Under-16s."

Robert Snodgrass

AGE: 23


LIVI CAREER: 92 games, 17 goals

BIO: Sold to Leeds United for 125,000 in July 2008. One full Scotland cap. Picked in the League One PFA Team of the Year for the 2009-10.

ROBERTSON'S VIEW: "You could never get the ball off him in training and he always had that strength. He worked very hard in training and was always one of the fittest. But he had a difficult upbringing and we had to work on his psychology. He has flourished at Leeds and he obviously took a long, hard look at himself. Getting away from distractions up here has obviously helped."

Leigh Griffiths

AGE: 2


LIVI CAREER: 52 games, 24 goals

BIO: Sold to Dundee for 125,000, July 1 2009. Scotland under-19, under-21 and B team caps.

ROBERTSON'S VIEW: "He always had an eye for goal and was so quick. He was another to get his chance under the player embargo. Mark Proctor threw him into the first team and he couldn't stop scoring. He had an unsettled childhood. We had to cajole Leigh and boost his confidence. Once we did that he was electric.

Andrew Halliday

AGE: 19

CURRENT CLUB: Middlesbrough

LIVI CAREER: 47 games, 15 goals

BIO: Sold to Middlesbrough for fee up to 200,000 depending on appearances on August 1, 2010.

ROBERTSON'S VIEW: "He was released by Rangers at 14. I said to him, 'You can either pick yourself up and prove them wrong or spend your life moping over it'. He got his chance when Livi were demoted to the Third, became that season's top scorer from midfield and won his move to Middlesbrough. He'll be a good player for Tony Mowbray."

Murray Davidson

AGE: 23

CURRENT CLUB: St Johnstone

LIVI CAREER: 40 games, 7 goals

BIO: Sold to St Johnstone, undisclosed fee, June 1 2009. Has been called up to full Scotland squad.

ROBERTSON'S VIEW: "He was always troubled by injury because he was growing. He suddenly shot up like a Redwood tree and it caused a few niggling injuries. I remember he went with Livi to an international tournament and we played Barcelona. In that game he became the player we all know.

He ran the game from midfield. I told Mark Proctor: You have to get Murray in the first team. He's done excellent at St Johnstone and got into the Scotland set up. One big game for Scotland and the big, big clubs will come calling."

James McPake

AGE: 26


LIVI CAREER: 119 games, 6 goals

BIO: Sold to Coventry City, undisclosed fee, January 30, 2009.

ROBERTSON'S VIEW: "Archie Knox turned him from a striker to a centre-half. He was always fully committed, but too committed sometimes. A natural leader."

Graham Dorrans

AGE: 23


LIVI CAREER: 91 games, 20 goals

BIO: Sold to WBA for 100,000. Five Scotland caps. Scottish First Division player of the year 2007-08.

ROBERTSON'S VIEW: "He has such a great touch and movement and a great deal of pace. He knew instinctively the areas where to go and do damage."

The current crop

MARK Mcnulty: Jim McArthur says: "It's no secret he's nicknamed 'the new Sparky' (Leigh Griffiths)."

Steven Scougall: Jim McArthur says: "He as a brilliant temperament and a brilliant touch."

Dean Cumming: Graeme Robertson says: "He has plenty of potential."