Thursday, November 16, 2017

We need a revolution, but Project Brave feels like the wrong one

It's hard to feel optimistic about Project Brave.

Part of that is due to the corny name - even thinking about it makes one cringe inwardly. Part of that is the thought that Malky Mackay is it's figurehead. But most of it is due to the fact that the SFA have done little in recent years that justifies ever giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Still, they've recognised that the failure to produce talented players for our national team is a huge problem, and this is their revolutionary plan to fix that. And sure, revolutions always upset lots of people.

The concern is that the criticisms so far have been pretty reasonable.

To recap, eight clubs are given Elite status, which means extra funding. Another eight have been put in a second tier with a bit less funding, and four more are a tier lower. The elite eight are Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen, Hearts, Hibs, Hamilton, Motherwell and Kilmarnock. That's just one club north of the Firth of Forth.

As you'd expect from any organization who uses the word 'transparency' often, there's been a fair amount of secrecy about the criteria used. In fact, much of the detail has only come as a result of some clubs publicly explaining why they are not at Elite level.

Dundee United revealed that because there are no adequate indoor training facilities in Tayside, they had no chance (presumably St. Johnstone suffered from the same problem).

St. Mirren would have had to hire five new members of staff - including a head of recruitment, a sports scientist and a performance analyst, which wasn't financially viable.

Partick Thistle, whose youth academy is financially backed by well-known Euromillions winners Chris and Colin Weir, released a beautifully written statement which was a tactful way of saying "we think it's all bollocks". They would have increase their overall outlay on the youth setup to £600,000/year - 20% of their annual budget. As they pointed out, they've been doing pretty well at producing players via their own methods.

Greenock Morton, stuck in the third group, were marked down simply because they've only had an academy for five years - apparently history matters more than actual quality (insert Rangers joke here).

And finally Ross County are appealing against missing out on Elite status despite apparently meeting the criteria; chairman Roy McGregor fired a pre-emptive strike last month by claiming the club's refusal to make primary school-age kids travel 200 miles to the central belt and back on Sundays was being used against them.

Of the eight clubs picked as Elite, five were shoo-ins: the Gruesome Twosome, the two Edinburgh clubs and Aberdeen. The Dons don't even have their own training ground let alone indoor facilities, but being able to access the local University's sports village is apparently good enough. That's despite stories that their kids' teams have to do a tour of local parks to find ones to train on.

The other three have clearly taken a wee bit of a financial risk in order to be deemed Elite. And since Kilmarnock, Hamilton and Motherwell all have a good recent record for developing and playing their own products it is hard to begrudge them. But is there really a need for five of the eight clubs to be within 30 minutes' drive of Hampden Park? The SFA's own annual performance review from earlier this year uses Keiran Freeman, a youngster signed by Southampton last summer, as evidence of the benefit of the Performance School model it is looking for clubs to adopt. Freeman is from Dundee. The next Tayside tyro will have to travel all the way to Edinburgh and back at least to train with an Elite setup.

As for the other five, what has actually changed that will improve the calibre of Scottish player being produced? There's no disagreement that the quality is insufficient, but its the clubs that produce the players, not the SFA. And these five clubs already hoard significant numbers of youngsters. How many so far are going on to be first teamers? Well, counting only players who have been in their academy setups in the last five years - so guys like Andrew Considine and Lewis Stevenson don't count - Aberdeen, Hibs and Rangers have between them just three players who have started Premiership matches this season. Hearts and Celtic can at least boast far more.

The main motivations for youth setups in the past have mostly seemed to be a combination of creating links with the local community and the hope that you'd be lucky enough to find the next superstar. So when in a couple of years Kieran Tierney gets to the point that playing in Scotland is holding him back the transfer fee will pay for many, many years of Celtic's setup. On a smaller scale the £1.5million Hibs got for Jason Cummings more than justified two or three completely stagnant years of production.

But the big clubs have always done their best to hoard the youth talent. Getting them to play the kids and give them the chance and experience they need has always another matter. After all, what First Team Manager is going to risk results and his own neck by playing youngsters and benefitting only a successor several years down the line? After their Euro 2000 disaster, Germany forced Bundesliga clubs to put six homegrown players in their matchday squad every week; only by introducing rules like these, rather than relying on the clubs looking past their own short-term selfishness, will progress be made in that area.

But my biggest bone with Project Brave is that I feel like the whole problem has been approached from the wrong angle. The biggest problems we have as a footballing nation are a lack of facilities and a lack of coaches. The first is not being addressed - clubs are just accessing what is already there - although it seems like coach numbers will be on the rise, albeit only at these Elite clubs. But it costs a fortune to get that qualification.

Given their recent successes Iceland are in vogue, and quite right too. Their achievements stem from building loads of indoor facilities (with government support) and subsidizing coaching qualifications, whilst refusing to allow anyone to coach even a four year old without some sort of UEFA licence. Said four year olds get access to said facilities and said coaches. Even though the vast majority are no more talented than you or I they get high quality coaching and, more importantly, exercise; the whole thing is a significant public health benefit. And as a bonus, fifteen years down the line there are far more international-class footballers per head of population than anywhere else in the world.

Maybe its a pipe dream to think the Scottish Government would have been amenable to such a scheme. But there's nothing to suggest the SFA even thought about it. Project Brave seems to instead do little more than give Elite clubs a badge that gives them even more chance of hoarding the kids who look the most talented, without actually giving them a carrot or a stick to get them to improve their output.

Plus ca change...

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly

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