In all the years I have watched Rangers youth teams this season has been the most difficult to look back and review. A measure of the season would normally have two elements, the progress of players to the first team would be the main aspect with performance in youth competitions a less significant measure.The unusual circumstances have meant a significant number of players have progressed to the first team. While a lack of meaningful competition for others has meant tracking the progress of a significant group of players very difficult.
On the positive side the contribution of Lewis McLeod, Barrie McKay, Fraser Aird and Robbie Crawford to the first team has been pleasing. Some people may question if they would have made any breakthrough under normal circumstances, but the facts are there and history will record that they made a significant contribution to stage one of our journey. Adding the cameo’s from Tom Walsh, Luca Gasparotto, Danny Stoney and Andy Murdoch, valuable experience has been gained at a young age.
Another positive was the deserved win over Celtic in this season’s Glasgow Cup Final. I am sure the older players in the team wouldn’t mind me giving a special mention to Under 16 players David Brownlie, Junior Ogen, Michael Mossie, Ben Reilly, Steven Chatterton, Adam Wilson and Ryan Hardie. With the exception of Ryan Hardie this group of players have been largely overlooked by the international selectors, while almost the entire Celtic team at this age group have gained recognition. If they can build on their performance in the final I’m sure a few more will make the Scotland 17’s side next season.
On the down side failure to enter/secure a place in the SPL Under 20 league has had a significant impact of a group of players too old for U17’s and not in the first team picture. A few got a decent amount of game time in the SFL Reserve league, but for a good few, their main source of football was bounce games arranged at short notice and the promised games against EPL academies never materialised. The standard of opposition in these games varied from big wins against Manchester Football Academy and Belfast Central College to closer games against, ironically, SPL youth sides. The youth cup was the only other competitive competition for the youngsters and with only a few players at the older end of the age group it meant the team was in the main an U18 side. After successfully negotiating their way past St.Johnstone, Dumbarton and Queen’s Park the youngsters suffered a heavy defeat to Kilmarnock. Where as the result and performance was disappointing, it should be noted that Rangers chose to leave out all the U20 players in the first team squad.
Another disappointing aspect is another four players where a development fee was paid, left the club without securing a pro-youth contract, two of them were at the club only just over one season. If a player is deemed worth paying a development fee at 13/14, surely it’s not unreasonable to expect the majority to still be of a standard to secure a pro-youth contract at 16/17.
One aspect of following the youth teams that brings great satisfaction is watching players progress from a young age through to the first team. Having watched both Robbie Crawford and Lewis McLeod since U13’s its great to seem them both performing in the first team, even at SFL3 level. I also enjoy watching former Rangers youth players progress at other clubs and even better if they eventually return to Ibrox. As I write this it looks like Nicky Clark will becoming “home”. Nicky was released by Rangers at U15 and if I am being honest I would have to agree with that decision at the time. He failed to make the break through at Aberdeen and after a loan spell at Peterhead he joined them permanently. It was a move to Queen of the South that saw him really take off, breaking scoring records last season. It looks like just like Alex Rae, Nicky will be coming back, but in his case the gap is significantly shorter.
Four other players released by Rangers made significant progress this season. Murray Wallace was capped at U21 level and was voted Hudderfield’s Young Player of the Year, Kenny McLean was capped at u21 level, Chris Johnston was voted SPL U20 player of the year and Connor McGrandles broke through at Falkirk, culminating in a Scottish Cup Semi Final appearance at 17. Anyone that knows me and has listened to my opinions would be aware of my surprise at these players being released. In fact quite a few are probably sick of me banging on about Murray Wallace in particular.
Murray along with Robbie Crawford was a standout in that age group, a left sided central defender, coming through a couple of years after Danny Wilson. At U16 Rangers were offering him a one year “Schoolboy” contract while Falkirk were offering a three year pro-youth contract, I may be wrong but I believe Falkirk paid Rangers a development fee. He moved to Huddersfield from Falkirk for a fee that could rise to £700,000, in January 2012, choosing the Yorkshire club ahead of Brighton and Ipswich.
In the case of Kenny McLean and looking in from the outside it appeared to be a straight choice between Kenny and Rhys McCabe. At U16 initially neither was given a pro youth contract but both were retained by the club. It was even common for one to replace the other in games and it looked like a choice between the two was being made. In the January McCabe signed a pro contract and Kenny was released. Why we couldn’t have kept both I don’t know.
Chris Johnston I think was released at U14, every couple of years there is a player that really catches the eye, and you look forward to seeing him from week to week. At U13 Chris was that player, an out and out winger he terrorised defences, on one occasion he reduced a young Hibs full-back to tears as the frustration of trying to get near him finally broke him. I watched a confident, happy player become unhappy, disillusioned and on the fringes by the time he reached u14’s.
Conor McGrandles I think was released at U15’s, he was a skillful, consistent player that played either wide left or wide right. He possibly suffered from being in the same group as Darren Ramsay, Charlie Telfer and Andy Murdoch, but we paid development fees for inferior players than Conor McGrandles in that age group.
Another disappointing aspect this season is the 13 Rangers-v-Celtic games at youth level that have been cancelled. At any level these are special games, and ones that the players and parents look forward to. The only meetings this season have been at U17, one Glasgow Cup group game, the other was cancelled after both qualified for the final and the Glasgow Cup Final itself. Only officials at the clubs know the reason these games have not taken place and both seem to blame each other. The perception from the outside is that each club are reluctant to play the other at the age groups were they are perceived to be inferior, so the cancellations become tit for tat.
So what are my hopes for next season ? Well obviously getting the club on a stable footing is everybody’s wish. As far as the youth development is concerned with a minimum of twenty “youth” players above u17 on the books and the likelihood that the first squad will increase in size, entry into the SPL U20 league is imperative. Otherwise a structured alternative will have to be put in place.
I would also like to see a more visible link between the youth side and first team, the manager and his assistants are rarely if ever seen at youth games. If the first team are training perhaps one of them will pop round for twenty minutes or so. Is a couple of hours for one of them on a Sunday too much to ask ? Not only will it let then see first hand the standard of player and style of play, but it would provide a boost to the youngsters.
Although this is a “Season” review, the younger ages from U11’s to U15’s are due to play until 22nd June, so still plenty of football left this season.