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Football's foreign flavour will wane

Wait a few years and there should be plenty of young home-grown talent coming on side, reports Roddy Mackenzie.

Nothing provokes more sporting debate than the state of the nation's footballers. Scotland's hopes of qualifying for the next World Cup finals in 2002 hang in the balance and, even if Craig Brown's side makes it, there is a general acceptance that the national team manager is working with limited tools.

Where is the next generation of football talent going to come from when some international players cannot even get games for their club sides as high-priced foreign imports keep them out?

The inevitable consequence of clubs hiring foreign coaches is that these coaches bring in talent they are familiar with at the expense of Scottish home-grown talent as they seek for a quick fix.

Scotland's under-18 schoolboys' team completes its home international programme against Northern Ireland in Ballyclare tonight, knowing that a win will give them the title after a 2-0 victory over Wales in Wrexham and a 0-0 draw with England at Rugby Park, Kilmarnock, at the end of last month.

But how many of the squad can harbour realistic hopes of a professional career, even those already signed on S forms by senior clubs? The Scottish Schools' Football Association always warns players to be cautious about the future and its handbook points out: "If a club signs 20 S forms, it will consider the investment very worthwhile if two or three of these boys eventually make the grade."

Yet Jim Sinclair, youth programme director at the Scottish Football Association is optimistic about the future and argues that there is still plenty of talent coming through the schools game.

"It irks me when I hear people saying Scotland is not producing players any more," he says. "I am very optimistic about the youth game here and there are some excellent young players around.

"There is definitely talent at the 10-12 age group with schoolchildren who have come through the Soccer Sevens programme.

"Although Andy Roxburgh started up the Sevens game here about 15 years ago, it is only in the last four or five years that it has taken off. The children that started with the game will now be around 12-13 and it will be a few years yet before we see the best of them emerging."

Mr Sinclair admits that chances for Scottish players have been restricted due to the influx of foreign players but he believes the tide is turning.

"If you look at Motherwell and Hearts, they have both offloaded highly-paid players due to the financial situations at the clubs and given young Scottish playersthe chance," he says.

"Their results have not been dramatically different and I think when other clubs see this, they may follow suit.

"Craig Levein deserves credit at Hearts as he has learned from his experience as manager of Cowdenbeath that there is home-grown talent in the lower leagues and he is signing players from there."

Mr Sinclair is particularly pleased with the SFA's youth development programme initiative which has been running for the past six months or so for S1 children. He reckons that, at a conservative estimate, it has prevented 4,000-5,000 first-year pupils being lost to the game since it started up.

The programme takes S1 pupils who are not registered with Scottish Premier League or Scottish Football League clubs and offers them the chance to play and progress at their own level in development centres in 28 to 32-week blocks. From there, regional squads are set up through SFA community officers. There are 35 squads across the country. Then senior clubs are invited to view players at this level.

Mr Sinclair is aware that, in the cut-throat world of the professional game, young players can be discarded at an early age and not necessarily be caught in a safety net and get a second chance.

"We want every kid to have the chance to play regardless of ability," Mr Sinclair points out. "Youngsters develop at different ages and some clubs put performance before potential and don't look at how they could develop. It can lead to young players being discarded before they have had time to reach their full potential. But we are working closely with SPL and SFL clubs on this."

"There are a lot more 12-year-olds playing the game now and it is mushrooming all the time. So when I say that there could be as many as 5,000 playing now who would otherwise have been lost to the game, it is a conservative estimate," explains Mr Sinclair.

"Our next step is to take it up to S1 and S2 pupils next year, as it has been so successful."

Tommy Wilson, the SFA's children's programme director, is still working on four-a-side and seven-a-side games at primary level and is launching a Mini-Kickers programme for pre-school youngsters to turn them on to the game.

One Scottish Premier League club has indicated it is keen to sign players as young as eight, but the SFA is still not keen for children under 12 to link up with senior professional clubs. "We feel that before the age of 12, youngsters should still be having a love affair with the game, for want of a better phrase," says Mr Sinclair. "There is plenty of time for them to develop after that."

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