There’s been a lot of focus on the Premiership this week from the English media…
Rangers’ youth academy has come under much scrutiny since its establishment in 2001. There has been no shortage of criticism of the perceived lack of young players graduating through the ranks at Murray Park and the debate over its success was once again ignited this week by the Daily Record’s Keith Jackson.
In his assessment of the rebuilding job Steven Gerrard is tasked with at the club, Jackson referred to a “youth department that fails consistently on its duty to deliver players fit for the first team.”
Of course, notable Auchenhowie alumni include Allan McGregor, Alan Hutton and Charlie Adam, but in recent years it is fair to say that few, if any, homegrown Rangers players have matched or even came close to the achievements of their predecessors. How accurate then is Jackson’s scathing judgement of the academy and can his claims be justified?
A brief look at the current youth set-up suggests there are reasons to be positive for Rangers fans. Several youth prospects featured in matchday squads throughout last season, with most also appearing regularly at international level across the age groups for Scotland. Ross McCrorie in particular is developing into a potential mainstay in the Rangers first team for years to come, while the development squad has excelled since taking on its elite games programme against some of the finest sides in Europe.
However, serious question marks remain over whether or not these promising young talents can realistically forge a permanent career at the Light Blues. Closer analysis of recent seasons reveals huge flaws in the youth system which add weight to the opinion that Murray Park has fallen short in its aims.
Heralded on the official club website as one of the most successful academies in the UK, the youth set-up at Rangers has produced several top team players. Indeed, since 2009 over 30 academy players have made their first-team debut. Averaging more than three youth graduates per season, this is certainly a fair return and one which perhaps exceeds expectations at most top-flight clubs.
Yet an important side note here is that the majority of this group were given their chance during Rangers’ progression through the lower leagues following liquidation in 2012. In fact, only 10 have made more than 25 appearances for the club, while almost half played fewer than 10 times before moving on. Shining lights from recent times – Lewis MacLeod and Barrie McKay – were sold to Brentford and Nottingham Forest respectively, for £850,000 and £500,000, relatively minor fees in today’s inflated English market.
Rangers’ journey back to the top flight of Scottish football should arguably have focused primarily on the development of the young players already at the club. Instead, experienced campaigners such as Kevin Kyle, Jon Daly, Francisco Sandaza, Ian Black, Emilson Cribari and Steve Simonsen, to name but a few, were brought in on excessively high wages to play against part-timers in the old Third Division and League One. Kyle is said to have earned around £100,000 in his single year at Rangers, paying the club back with a paltry three goals in just 15 appearances.
It seems remarkable to think that there were no other suitable alternatives within the youth system at the time, able to step up and take on the role of playing for Rangers week-in, week-out. Promoting from within was almost a last resort when at the same time, Queen’s Park were relying on Andrew Robertson, Blair Spittal and Lawrence Shankland – successful products of their own youth system who have gone on to play at the highest level. Of the Rangers youth players trusted with first team action at the time, a significant proportion now ply their trade in the lower reaches of the Scottish and English game, Northern Ireland or further afield in the Netherlands and Iceland. Former academy graduate Danny Wilson returned to the club in 2015 only to leave for the MLS earlier this year with his contract up in the summer.
The youth department at Rangers was severely neglected during years of financial turmoil and mismanagement at all levels of the club made the scouting system almost non-existent. Ally McCoist was charged with the responsibility of returning Rangers to the top flight as quickly as possible, contributing to a wasted generation of young, homegrown talent.
Now, with Gerrard at the helm and Mark Allen in the director of football role, long-term plans have been put in place to ensure the stability and future success of the academy. Allen, former academy director at Manchester City, has an excellent track record of improving the youth system while it will be interesting to see how much Gerrard, former Liverpool under-18s coach, relies on young players in the Rangers academy. Head of academy, Craig Mulholland, has been credited with revolutionising the youth department and former players Peter Lovenkrands, Gregory Vignal and Kevin Thomson have all been recruited in coaching capacities.
The decision to withdraw from the SPFL Development League last season has proved a shrewd move, with the development squad recording impressive results against the likes of Bayern Munich, Copenhagen, Leicester City, Benfica and Valencia. Young prospects such as Glen Middleton, signed from Norwich City in January, Zak Rudden, Jamie Barjonas, Aidan Wilson and brothers Ross and Robbie McCrorie are tipped for very bright futures at domestic and international level and their progression will undoubtedly improve with Gerrard in charge.
There are still examples of shortcomings, however, as the supremely talented Billy Gilmour left for the lure of Chelsea without a senior Rangers appearance to his name, though it has been accepted this may have been an opportunity simply too good to turn down. Meanwhile David Bates, initially signed on youth terms from Raith Rovers before impressing in the Premiership last season, was allowed to leave for German 2.Bundesliga side Hamburg on a free transfer, with Rangers seemingly unwilling or unable to match his wage demands.
The Ibrox side’s youth department also still has some way to go to rival their Old Firm counterparts, as just last season Celtic handed Champions League game time to four academy players in James Forrest, Kieran Tierney, Callum McGregor and Anthony Ralston.
Despite the constant criticism of Rangers’ academy, signs are starting to show that there may be real progress on the horizon. The claim that “from the bottom up this is a club in need of urgent, radical reform,” is discredited by the fact that the youth academy appears to already be benefitting from new strategies and a prosperous new era could just be beginning.