I hadn’t intended to blog about Rangers again, as to be perfectly honest I’m a bit sick of the maelstrom of opinion that flies about the internet after every game, but like so many Al Pacino films, I keep getting dragged back in, or can’t find a way out…
There’s been much consternation among the support in recent days because of newspaper reports linking us with signing Craig Gordon and Kenny Miller, both of whom are in their 30s. Rangers fans have something of a deep-rooted fascination with blooding young players; I regularly see tweets bemoaning the fact that we don’t play more kids. To an extent, that’s logical. Most people connected with the club, including the manager himself, probably agree that producing our own young products, and potentially selling them on, is healthier than buying players in, particularly after events of the last 15 years.
That’s about where the concordance ends; a lot of people don’t believe the manager is doing enough to develop youth, and have compared us unfavourably to clubs such as Dundee United and Southampton. “Why can’t we be more like them?” “Why doesn’t McCoist trust youth?” are two of the most oft-asked questions.
Firstly, a top-class youth academy isn’t the cheap alternative some take it to be. I’ve already written at length about the myth of just how many youth players played for Southampton during their promotion seasons, but if we’re holding them up as an example, their academy costs £2.5m per annum to run. They also have a far more densely populated local catchment area than Rangers enjoy.
Banging on about the fact Southampton didn’t, and don’t yet depend on youth is important, because it’s what Rangers are accused of doing when we found ourselves in the bottom tier of Scottish football. This complaint is doubly frustrating when you consider that we did play the youth, and yet are perceived to not have, when Southampton didn’t and are held up as an archetype for doing so.
I’ve compiled some stats that compare the number of youth team products Rangers and Southampton played in their respective first two seasons on their way back to the top flight, so to speak. As you can see, in both seasons Rangers played proportionally more youth team products starting in the league, and that’s not allowing for the fact that Macleod, Little, Hutton, Hegarty and Perry have all missed huge chunks of both seasons through injury.
(Ages represent players’ age on 1st August of the first year of the respective season)
It’s also worth looking at the number of youth team graduates that have played for the first team in the last two seasons;
From the above we can see that six graduates have played around 50 games in the last two seasons, and another 14 have had some part to play. But I know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking ‘most of them are shite’. That’s not really the argument here; the argument is that we gave youth players a chance. I’ll also point out that most of the kids that registered fewer than 10 appearances, with the exception of Darren Cole, are held up as being precocious talents that we should have utilised more. This is another recurring theme; the fewer games a young player plays, the higher his stock seems to get. See also Jordan McMillan.
The latest argument I’ve seen, however, is not that we’re playing more or fewer young players than Southampton or Dundee United, or that we don’t have two teenagers as established first team players, but that we haven’t brought through enough players from our u-20 squad this season. While it’s true that only Calum Gallagher has started a game for the first team this season, I think it’s important to take into account the following;
Firstly,due to the state of the squad at the start of last season, we probably brought through more youth players than we would normally. Aird, Crawford, Macleod, McKay, Hegarty and Naismith all had their breakthroughs last season. Gasparotta and Stoney played more games than they could otherwise have expected. Of those, Aird, Macleod, McKay, Gasparotta and Stoney are all still eligible for the u-20s. Crawford has only just turned 21.
Secondly, it could be argued that as the u-20s are playing against 15 of their counterparts from the top two tiers in Scotland, and they’re currently two points away from winning the bloody thing, that the teenagers in our squad are getting more development there than they would getting 20 minutes getting kicked the length and breadth of Scotland in dead rubbers in the third tier of the senior game.
Thirdly, there’s no necessity to bring through a set quota of young players each year. If you do, you run the risk of sacrificing quality to quantity. There is the argument that giving games to young players gives them more hope of making the first team, but that’s the example they have to take from the likes of Aird and Macleod.
In truth, none of the above matters. Pointing out that we’ve played 20 youth team graduates in two seasons, or that we’ve won two promotions in a row playing a trio of 18 year olds won’t change anyone’s mind, as this no-youth thing has become dogma, rhetoric. If it’s not not playing teenagers, it’ll be something else. But all I can do is argue my case here.