When I wrote the first part of this blog, I expected to receive more disagreeable comments on what I felt was something of a contentious topic. As it was, I was only tweeted by one person, @dross1989, stating that Rangers fans are frustrated because “Most of the youth players you use in your piece are nowhere near 1st team squad this year.”
It’s true that the number of youth team graduates/young players (there’s a semantic difference there that I’ll go into later) in the Rangers first team this season has been sparse. Lewis Macleod started most matches, when fit, before his travesty of a transfer to Brentford. Fraser Aird has started 9 matches (missing a few games through injury), and Kyle Hutton has started twice. You could make an argument for including Steven Smith’s 10 starts, as he came through the Rangers youth system before his three year sabbatical, but even I’m not that brave…
It’s a disappointing return (and similar to last season’s), if you feel that your team’s line up should have as low an average age as possible, and that a whole new crop of young players should break through each season. Personally, I’m not overly concerned, and I’ll try to explain why…
A few years ago, I found an old copy of the Scottish Football Review while tidying the house. It was from the 1996-97 season, but as I looked at the squad lists I found that I barely recognised any of the names. Of the then teenage players, the three Barrys (Ferguson, Nicholson, Robson) were the most noticeable, but many of the 166 names meant nothing to me. For a while I believed this was due to the Scottish game being unable to nourish its young talent, but a few years ago, an alternative explanation presented itself; football is simply an over-subscribed job market.
By way of illustration, consider how many starting places there are in the SPFL Premiership. 12 clubs need to field 11 players each week. Factoring in 9 reserves to cover throughout the season, that’s 240 players in total. Each club will have a number of youth teams as well, so it wouldn’t be unrealistic to suggest that there are ~250 young players trying to secure a first team starting place each season. The fact is that most can’t, and won’t, and haven’t made it. This has the knock-on effect that those young players that do break through have to have something special about them.
Of the 166 15-18 year olds registered to Scottish football league clubs in 1996, a few of them did make a name for themselves in the game: Russell Anderson, Barry Ferguson, Kenny Miller, Gary Naysmith, Barry Robson, Barry Nicholson, Neil Alexander, Lee Wilkie, Gary Teale, Steven Thompson, Craig Dargo, Chris Iwelumo. Most of them played in the English Premier League, Europe, and for Scotland. The vast majority of the rest faded away, to Junior football, or drifting out of the game altogether. And that’s still true today: the vast majority of young men contracted as professional footballers when they’re aged 16-18 won’t be when they’re 22.
This brings us neatly (or perhaps not) to 21 year old Kyle McAusland, who has been released by Rangers today to much consternation from the online faithful. It’s another sign of Rangers lack of trust in youth and short-sightedness in general seemed to be the consensus on Twitter earlier. McAusland seems a decent young player, but I think he’s become a victim of what I like to call ‘Jordan McMillan’ syndrome, whereby the reputation of a young player at Rangers increases each week he doesn’t get a game for the first team, simply because he’s young. The same thing happened with Andy Mitchell, who after being released spent half a season at Annan before ending up at Southport in the English Conference. McAusland seems like a decent young player, but 3 league starts for Rangers and two loan spells, all in the Scottish third tier, isn’t a great pedigree. A recurring sentiment in my Twitter search earlier was that ‘he can’t be any worse than Foster’. Well, he could. There’s a fairly good chance that the guy with 60 matches worth of experience in the second lowest league in Scotland isn’t as talented a footballer as the guy who’s played 400 games at a far higher level, regardless of popular opinion.
But here’s the rub; Rangers fans often like to talk about the standard of player that’s fit to pull on the shirt. We have very, very high standards. Players like Charlie Adam, Steven Davis, Steven Whittaker et al have gone on to make decent careers for themselves in the English Premier League, but were slaughtered on a weekly basis when they played for Rangers (all three of them are still slagged off regularly, it has to be said.) Why then, are we so willing to accept that Jordan McMillan, Andy Mitchell and Kyle McAusland are the answer to our problems at right-back, based on the few matches they each started? Is it simply because they’re relatively young? They almost certainly can’t have proved themselves. Sometimes our fans’ approach to new players reminds me of the quote from The Dark Knight: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Or the Villan, in Alan Hutton’s case.
However, I can certainly see the argument that the likes of Calum Gallagher, Barrie McKay and Ryan Hardie might excite the fans (I’d personally like to see all three of them involved more often), and will certainly be on less money than the current first team squad. There’s a chance that they might even be better players. But it’s by no means guaranteed. The problems with the team at the present moment in time, in my opinion, run deeper than being mere footballing issues.
And a couple of other things…
The difference between a young player and a youth team graduate is that the former is typically aged 21 or under, and the latter is someone that’s come through the youth system, and may well still be there. Ryan Giggs for instance would have been a young player until 199-95, then he would have become a youth team graduate. That’s the terminology I use anyway. I get the impression Rangers fans would like to see more young players than youth team graduates.
I continually read that Rangers are afraid of playing young players. I’m not sure that’s entirely true. John Fleck, Andy Little, Danny Wilson, Gregg Wylde, Jamie Ness, Kyle Hutton, Darren Cole, Ross Perry, Kane Hemming, Andy Mitchell, Rhys McCabe, Barrie McKay, Lewis Macleod, Scott Gallacher, Robbie Crawford, Tom Walsh, Kal Naismith, Luca Gasparotta, Chris Hegarty, Kyle McAusland, Fraser Aird, Andy Murdoch, Charlie Telfer, Calum Gallagher and Ryan Hardie have played for the first team in the last eight seasons. 25 players. That’s over three debutants each season. Of course, it didn’t work out for every one of them, perhaps due to them, perhaps due to management, certainly due to certain ex-owners of the club.