Motherwell have undoubtedly been one of the most fun teams in the Scottish Premiership this…
At this time of the year, with domestic football concluded and the World Cup looming on the horizon, most fans will turn their attention to their national side. Of course, Scotland won’t be taking part in Russia but there are still international games taking place that the country can rally behind. It’s not the friendlies against Peru and Mexico that should excite the Tartan Army, however: it’s the U21s.
Scot Gemmill’s squad are currently competing in the Toulon Tournament and have surpassed expectations, topping a qualification group that included France, South Korea and Togo. A semi-final against England awaits but the Scots have good reason to be wary. At last year’s tournament the two sides met at the same stage, only for England to run out comfortable 3-0 winners.
Gemmill has his team playing creative, entertaining football and there’s plenty to get excited about, even if we may need to wait a few years until players make the jump to the senior international side. There are some such as Oli Burke who are fairly well-known, but Gemmill has been brave with his squad selection. The majority are still in their teens, with some as young as sixteen. Yet here they are, facing up against some of football’s most established countries and giving them a run for their money.
So who’s catching the eye then? We’ve taken a look at the defence, midfield and attack to pinpoint which players we should be keeping an eye on.
Scotland has struggled to produce quality defenders in the past but there is genuine grounds for optimism about the calibre of players coming through. In their three matches so far, Scotland have conceded only twice and even kept a clean sheet against France. Young centre backs like Scott McKenna, Jack Hendry and John Souttar have impressed in the Premiership this season and the under-21s have their own promising talents.
We’ve recently covered Ryan Porteous and Greg Taylor – who was voted the fourth-best player at last year’s Toulon Tournament – and highlighted the important roles the two will play for Hibs and Kilmarnock respectively going forward. There are others, though, who have similarly caught the eye. St Johnstone’s Jason Kerr, who usually plays at right back for his club, has performed admirably in central defence and is yet to miss a minute of play at the tournament in France.
Kerr’s move inward is primarily so that the starting lineup can accommodate both him and Celtic’s Anthony Ralston, who spent much of the season at Dundee United. The right back has held his own in the United squad and is enjoying a good tournament in France. But then, this is a player who lined up against Neymar earlier this season. Ralston is unlikely to be fazed after such a testing baptism of fire.
Michael Johnston, another Celtic youth product, is aged just 19 but isn’t far off from securing the left winger position in Gemmill’s team. Johnston is a traditional winger – pacy, direct and skillful – but clearly has an eye for goal too. He’s yet to score at the Toulon Tournament, but hit three goals in five appearances for Celtic in the UEFA Youth League this season. If he can reproduce his club form at international level, then there’s no reason to think Johnston won’t be pushing for a senior international place one day in the future.
Motherwell’s Allan Campbell is another youngster we’ve previously focused on, and with good reason too. The central midfielder has became a vital part of Stephen Robinson’s team over the last campaign and plays for the U21s with a similar composure that belies his age. The 20-year-old has played every minute of the Toulon Tournament so far, having previously been capped on five occasions by Gemmill.
Arguably the most exciting player coming through the national team ranks, however, is Chelsea’s Billy Gilmour. Signed from Rangers last summer for a reported £500,000, Gilmour plays in the middle of the park or as a number ten. The 16-year old is significantly younger than most of the other players at the Toulon Tournament but is more than holding his own. His goal against South Korea in the final group stage fixture highlighted his ability; the midfielder got on the end of a cross from the left, fooled three players with a clever dummy and demonstrated excellent footwork to dance over the ball before curling it into the far post. Gilmour looks to be the sort of player that can create opportunities where there don’t appear to be any – his development in Gemmill’s team over the coming years should be watched closely.
In the final third, Dundee’s Craig Wighton continues to show flashes of promise yet lacks consistency, but this is to be expected. Injury hampered his domestic campaign when the forward suffered ligament damage last summer but Wighton bounced back sooner than expected and will now be looking to regain his form. Gemmill clearly rates Wighton and played him in every game at last year’s Toulon Tournament.
Fraser Hornby, Everton’s 18-year-old centre forward, made his debut for the under-21s in the match against Togo and scored Scotland’s equaliser. Hornby has previously represented Scotland at under-17 and under-19 level and has taken the recent promotion in his stride. The striker played in more than half of Everton’s reserve games during 2017/18 campaign – where the majority of players are in their twenties – and looks likely to replace Oli McBurnie’s role in the under-21s squad.