Roddy Mackenzie talks to coach Billy Henderson about Scotland's Under-15 Schoolboys squad and football's future.
Craig Brown may be the keeper of dreams in terms of our nation's football team but Billy Henderson, head of physical education at The James Young High school in Livingston, has early insights of what the future holds. As coach to Scotland's Under-15 Schoolboys team, he nurtures the talent that could be available to Mr Brown, or his successor, in 10 years' time.
The number of players who progress from the under-15 team to the senior squad is limited but players such as Paul Ritchie, Paul Lambert, Craig Burley and Duncan Ferguson have all made the great leap in recent years.
Although the Scottish Schools' Football Association is now playing international matches at under-14 level, it is still at under-15 level and in the Victory Shield games against England, Wales and Northern Ireland that early judgments are formed. These are all shown live by Sky television and are attended by scouts from senior clubs throughout Britain.
Scotland's Victory Shield campaign did not start too well this year, with a 3-0 defeat by Wales in Stirling, but the keenest interest is always around the clash with England, taking place in Chester on November 9.
Of the 18-strong squad, five have already been snapped up on "S" forms by professional clubs. However, as the SSFA points out, signing as a schoolboy for a club does not guarantee a professional future. If a club signs 20 "S" forms, it will be happy if two or three go on to make the grade.
Mr Henderson's current under-15 squad is drawn from all parts of the country with Ayrshire and Aberdeenshire as well represented as the more traditional football grounds of Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Most of the players will have learned the game through playing small-sided football and Mr Henderson is confident that the skill level of the team is comparable to teams in the past.
"I think it still goes in cycles - one year you can get three or four very good players coming through and other years it may not be so high," he says. "There's a lot more to distract boys than in previous years, with computer games and other things, and there's maybe not the same hunger to succeed. But when you see the money professional players are earning these days, there can be no greater incentive for boys to make the grade."
In addition to the Victory Shield, there are plans to face Austria and the Czech Republic next spring (still to be confirmed) and to attend the Eight Nations Tournament in Ballymena next May. By then, Mr Henderson will know which players have the potential to go on and make the senior grade.
He believes that schools international matches make a difference to the development of players, allowing them to pit their skills against players from foreign countries. "At under-15 level, we stand up pretty well against the likes of the Dutch," he says.
But playing at schools international level is also about experiencing different cultures and not just preparing for a professional football career, as most boys will not end upearning a living from the game.
"You never know how players are going to develop," Mr Henderson says. "Of the Scotland youth team that reached the World Cup final in 1989, Paul Dickov won his first senior cap this month and Brian O'Neil has gone on to play at full international level. But several of the Portuguese youth team, which lost to Scotland in the semi-finals that year, played for their full side in Euro 2000."
Mr Henderson is optimistic about Scotland's ability to produce talented players through the new youth initiative leagues being run by professional clubs and with many senior clubs now setting up youth academies.
However, he is concerned about what will happen if transfers are abolished throughout Europe, as is being mooted. Dutch club Ajax has been made financially secure by investing in young players and selling them on at huge transfer fees, confident in the knowledge that its system would continue an assembly line of talent to take their places.
"The English clubs have gone for youth academies in a big way and Scottish clubs are starting to follow suit," he says. "But clubs will hesitate to plough a lot of money into youth academies if there is no return at the end of the day and I'm not sure they will continue to go down that road if they cannot recoup a lot of the money in transfer fees.
"Our local club, Livingston, has talked of setting up a youth academy, but I wonder if it will happen if they cannot bring money in from selling players on. It is a concern and a lot of clubs are waiting to see what will happen."
If Mr Henderson could be granted one wish to ensure Scotland continues to produce talent, it would be more purpose-built indoor centres.
"The weather here is not conducive to developing skills," he says. "It was a problem that Norway addressed a few years back. Norway's big improvement at international level is due to the number of indoor centres it now has throughout the country, where young players can play no matter the weather."
Mr Henderson says certain issues have to be resolved in the Scottish game as a whole to open doors for young players.
"I believe there are some trying times ahead. I don't know if we've got it right about the number of foreign players playing in Scotland. I looked at the Dundee United team the other week and it was full of foreign players. It is not just happening in the Premier League and it is going down to first and second division clubs now.
"You can't blame clubs when they can sign two foreign players for the price of one Scot, but it needs to be looked at closely, otherwise there will be fewer and fewer opportunities for young players.
"Of course, there are two ways of looking at it and some of the foreign players also bring in good habits. Eric Cantona may have been the enfant terrible but he would stay behind after training to work on his skills, and I know that has been a factor in English players like Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes coming through at Manchester United.
"A balance has to be found in Scotland for our young players to be given a proper chance."