Youth game taken under old pro's wing
Scotland's best young school football players are to be offered more protection from the dangers of burn-out under the Scottish Football Association's radical 10-year pound;31 million youth action plan.
Fears have been expressed in the past that the best youth players are in such demand that they are over-played and professional clubs have not considered their overall wellbeing.
One Scottish Premierleague club was understood to be asking players to attend their youth academy six nights a week, which would impact on academic schoolwork.
However, Many Players, One Goal: an Action Plan for Scottish Youth Football, which was launched in March, is expected to introduce national performance criteria for clubs involved in elite youth development and it will mean certain standards have to be adhered to. These cover not only coaching but also player education and welfare, sports science and financial management.
Tommy McIntyre, 40, the former Aberdeen, Hibernian and Airdrie player, has been appointed head of youth development to drive forward the action plan and is well qualified to address issues concerning how players are nurtured, as he has spent the past seven years as a football development officer in North Lanarkshire.
At a time when Scotland's senior national team is at an all-time low in world rankings, there is added pressure on the SFA to create the right opportunities for young players.
"I think the professional clubs should continue to cater for the very best young players as they have the best coaches," Mr McIntyre says. "But we don't want to flog young players to the point where the best are playing seven nights a week because there are so many demands on them.
"There needs to be a balance with academic work and developing a well-rounded individual. It's about learning life skills as well as developing potential.
"I think clubs are now realising the importance of supporting the individual through his academic work. A better educated player can reflect better on the club in years to come."
Mr McIntyre sees the professional clubs leading the way, with the back-up of regional centres of excellence for young players which will also have access to coaching of the highest quality.
He is aware that there are contentious issues about professional clubs recruiting ever younger players, with children as young as eight being targeted.
"It's not for me to say at what age professional clubs should be able to take on players," he says. "What I would say is that if a young player is being taken on at 10, then he is given the appropriate level of support for a 10-year-old. Similarly, when they are 11, 12 or 13, they get the appropriate support any 11-, 12- or 13-year-old would get.
"It is not just about the elite players. Only a small percentage of players get to make it in the professional game and we don't want to turn people away. We want to keep as many people playing as long as possible, as youngsters develop at different rates and the best player at 12 may not be the best player three or four years later.
"We need to ensure that if they do not make it at 13 or 14, this does not disbar them in future and we need to have a strategy in place so that if they are late developers, they are not overlooked in future."
The current structures of youth football are being studied closely and Mr McIntyre is keen to point out that a lot of good work has been done in recent years to improve the quality of young players coming through.
"I think we, as a nation, have a tendency to criticise what is bad rather than emphasise what is good and there are a lot of good things going on in local communities," he says.
"The SFA has put a lot of people through its coach education programme and it is envied throughout Europe. But we have to constantly re-evaluate things as everything changes and things stagnate if they are left alone.
"We will try to work hand in hand with people already involved. We are not here to go against what is currently happening. The main thing is for us to create opportunities and not to deny youngsters the chance to play football."
Mr McIntyre's remit will be as much to look at the primary school game as to help teenagers fulfil their potential. With the help of UEFA funding, 64 mini-pitches will be constructed throughout Scotland.
"We want small-sided games for all primary aged children. It's happening in about 90 per cent of schools at the moment but we want to bring the remaining 10 per cent in," he says. "We need to find out why they are not playing small-sided football just now and work from there.
"But most areas of the country have tremendous schemes in place. In North Lanarkshire, for the past five years all primary aged children have been playing seven-a-side and the council has put small-sided pitches in primary schools and nurseries."
To further boost the youth game, a switch to summer football has been recommended. While that could cause problems for the Scottish Schools Football Association's national competitions, it might mean taking a winter break, perhaps from December to February, and playing the later stages in the summer term.
"It is something we need to look at as schools stop in early July and do not go back until late August," says Mr McIntyre. "But summer football has been discussed with a possibility that it will be piloted at under-17 level next summer. It still has to be decided what scale that has to be on, but it's something that will likely happen.
"I think it will benefit everyone, from players to coaches. Most players would enjoy playing on better surfaces in the summer than playing on pitches from December to February when they are not at their best.
"It's one of many avenues we want to take a look at. The main thing is that the game benefits in the long run and does not remain static. But it will be done in consultation with many groups and it will not be an erratic decision."