Falkirk show Scotland the way forward by investing in youth and reaping the benefits...
The economic woes of Scottish Football are well known but while Rangers go through financial meltdown, Falkirk are showing the way forward for the nation's clubs by investing in youth and reaping the benefits...
The health of Scottish football has taken a turn for the worse in recent times with many clubs facing an increasingly unsure future. As those in power try to remedy the financial mismanagement that has resulted in these problems one thing is for certain, the game will have to change.
No longer able to compete with the financial muscle of Europe's biggest leagues, a new way must be found to ensure both the sustainability of the nation's clubs whilst at the same time producing the best possible players. This has been recognised by many, with the Scottish FA overhauling youth development and many clubs beginning to see young players as the key to their long term success on and off the pitch.
Those who want to see the benefits need look no further than Scottish First Division club Falkirk FC. Having had their future threatened by financial problems, the club was forced to change the way it operated. Unable to go out and pay large fees to secure players, Falkirk instead turned to its academy to produce players for the first team in the hope of then selling them on to bigger clubs to raise funds.
The decision has been a success. Not only has the club managed to produce 10 players in the academy, who are currently in the first team, but it has also sold players which has helped ease financial worries. The January transfer window saw it sell two players for six figure sums and with an average squad age of just 21.9, they are hardly likely to be the last to net the Bairns considerable transfer fees.
Far from happening overnight, the recent success the club has had in youth development has been the result of seven years of investment in the academy. Now reaping the rewards of this hard work, manager Steven Pressley said the plan to develop and promote young players had always been the goal of the club but it was not envisaged to happen so quickly.
"The speed with which we have been forced [to promote young players] was quicker than we expected due to the financial constraints we faced and we had little choice," he admits.
While financial constraints played a role in Falkirk turning to youth, Pressley said it was a model that many in Scotland would do well to learn from.
"This is the only model that works and we have a strategy just now where we are looking to sell young players," says Pressley.
"But eventually, once you have sold enough players, it puts you in a position where you become a club that does not have to sell a player a season and that is where we want to get to but it takes time.
"When you look at a couple of the bigger clubs in Scotland, Rangers' financial plight, Hearts' plight, when you see clubs with those resources in that type of trouble, it should be a stark reminder to us at this level that we have to manage our club properly as a business."
While a youth focus made business sense for the club the decision has also benefited Falkirk on the pitch. Far from handicapping their performances, the club's youngsters have dispelled many myths about experienced players being essential.
Despite having such a young squad they have managed to knock Rangers out of the Scottish Communities Cup, clinched the Ramsdens Cup with a win over Hamilton Academical in the final and currently sit second behind Ross County on the First Division ladder.
The speed at which his young players have adapted to the demands of first team football has even surprised Pressley.
"For me it has been great learning curve," he says. "While I have always been in favour of developing my own players, it has changed my whole idea on how quickly you can play them, if you get certain aspects right."
The most important aspect of preparing players Pressley said is their tactical education. This is something Pressley and the Falkirk academy works hard on.
"Young players when they come to your club often have the technical ability but they don't have the knowhow," he says.
"I believe they must play in a way that is organised and structured, they still must have the ability to express themselves but they must also have a clear idea of how the team functions and their responsibilities within it.
"There must be very little grey areas and if you give them that information young players take it on very quickly and can play in your first team."
Equipping them with the skills to play in the first team has been essential to Falkirk's success but the belief in their abilities and trust in them has been just as important. With coaches constantly under pressure to get results they can understandably be wary of relying too heavily on young players.
However, Pressley said it was vital that talented young players were fast tracked to the first team if they were to have the best chance of fulfilling their potential and that many underestimated the ability of the country's youth.
"One of the biggest problems in Scotland is we don't believe how good the young players are under our noses, we always look at teams that are playing young players and think they must be better than the ones at your club," he says.
"More often than not they aren't it is just that they have been given the opportunity to progress."
Pressley said that a common characteristic in most successful player's careers was that they were given the opportunity to play in the first team early on in their careers.
He adds: "Everybody is always looking for new ways to progress and the truth is that although the game has evolved, mainly tactically, many of the fundamentals have stayed the same and most of the real successful players played in the first team at a very young age."
By promoting young players to the first team at such a young age it has also made it much easier to attract the best possible quality to the club's academy. Able to show a well established route to the first team Falkirk Academy Director Craig Macpherson said the club was becoming an increasingly attractive option for young players.
"It is a good selling point if we are approaching a boy, or a parent, to be able say we have 16 and 17 year olds in the first team, there is a pathway there," says Macpherson.
While this will no doubt benefit the club into the future Macpherson said they could take nothing for granted and could not just sit back and expect the academy to keep producing players.
"At the moment we are seeing the fruits of work that was started 6-7 years ago by Ross Wilson, George Craig, John Hughes and Brian Rice and Eddie May who came up and headed up the youth academy," he says.
"They started then and it is only now through the course of time that we are seeing some of those boys progressing through to the first team.
"There are no guarantees. I can't say to the manager: 'In two years time, I will guarantee you there will be six players I will have ready for you.'
"We just have to work as hard possible and give the players the best chance possible."
Macpherson said that expectations amongst supporters have risen over the past year with many eager to see where the next talented player is coming from.
While this adds pressure, it highlights the success the club has had with its youth development.
Some may have been sceptical at the start of the season worried how so many young players would cope with the demanding nature of the First Division but Pressley said the fans had embraced the clubs youth focus.
He adds: "I think if you are honest and open with the supporters and make them aware of the financial constraints that face the club, and that this is the only way a club like this can survive, you will get them on board."
In the current climate fans know the value of financial responsibility but all Falkirk fans would no doubt wish to see their club back in the SPL. Pressley said this remained the goal of the club and that the focus on promoting youth would allow the club to get to the SPL.
"I want to develop a team that when eventually we go up to the SPL that team is capable of making the step," he says.
"I don't want to develop a team that can only win this league but is not good enough for the next."
Scottish football may indeed be in a difficult moment but it will emerge from it and the current problems offer the opportunity to embrace a different approach. While it may be a case of short term pain, the talented young players across the country can ensure a bright future just as they have at Falkirk.
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