Archive for June, 2020

Part 4, The Rest & A Few Rangers Youths

June 13, 2020

Well this will be the fourth and final part where I will look at the non “Elite Academy” club’s players I have noticed. I have already covered Dundee United who are due to joint the Elite group in the coming season. I will also highlight ten players I thought may have made a first team breakthrough at Rangers but didn’t.

There has been talk of St.Mirren moving into the Elite group and they would be a good addition, although its not happening this season. One area where they have capitalised is picking up and developing players Rangers have released. There was a period where our decisions on who we released really surprised me, and in Kenny McLean, Lewis Morgan, Kyle McAllister and Jack Baird St. Mirren benefited. Thomas Reilly and Sean Kelly maybe didn’t stand out at Rangers but were good youth players at St. Mirren.

Outwith these former ‘Gers two standouts for me were Simon Lappin, Stevie Mallon and Andy Stirling. Left sided player Lappin won a move to Norwich City and played over a hundred games, later turning out for Cardiff City, Motherwell, Sheffield United and St.Johnstone and is still player coach at Eastern Counties League wide Wroxham. A move to Barnsley didn’t quite work out for Mallan but got back on track with a return to Scotland with Hibs. Andy Stirling has been a a few clubs including a short spell in America, he most recently played against us for Stranraer.

Simon Lappin

Marc McAusland, Ally Love, Mark Lamont, and Jason Naismith were all decent youth players and from the current crop Cammy McPherson and Kyle Magennis are making their way in the game.

Under the radar, has to be John McGinn, I remember him as a young player but never seen him being a Premiership player of the future.

Partick Thistle competed in the semi official Youth League in the late 70’s early 80’s, Rangers didn’t so I took in a couple of Thistle’s games and their strike force was Maurice Johnston and Kenny McDowall, I wonder what happened to them.

Generally speaking as a club they have disappointed since, with the players that caught my eye like Neil McLaughlin, Kevin Nisbet and David Wilson not really getting established at Thistle. Only Nisbet’s career has taken an upward curve with an exceptional season at Dunfermline, while Wilson is at Stirling Albion and McLaughlin in the Lowland League at Caledonia Braves (formerly Edusport). The only success I can think of is full back James Penrice who has become an established first team player.

Neil McLaughlin

In recent times only Liam Lindsay stood out and is now at Stoke City after initially moving south to Barnsley.

I’ll take Inverness CT and Ross County as a package, as they operate in the same limited catchment area. They have both made great strides since they first entered the youth scene, the biggest score I have witnessed at a youth game was a Rangers side beating Ross County 26-1, with Ross County playing the last half-hour period with fourteen players !! There is still a gap, especially at the younger age groups where Rangers tend to move the teams up a year when playing these clubs.

The one standout at Ross County was Gary Mackay-Steven, moving from the Highlands to Liverpool. Alex Cooper, son of former Rangers Neale was a talented young player but never fulfilled his promise. Inverness have fared slightly better with Ryan Christie being the real standout. I also thought Shane Sutherland, Liam Polworth and Nick Ross were promising.

Alex Cooper

Queens Park have a great setup but as there is no pathway into full-time football, their better players have usually moved on by the age of 16 and make their break through elsewhere. Nathan Blockley, Owen Ronald, Ryan McGeever and Aiden Connolly impressed as youths but their careers never really took off. After failing to impress Jimmy Sinclair on his extended trial at Rangers, Laurence Shankland caught the attention of Aberdeen playing at Queens Park. That move didn’t work out but he has thrived since.

Robertson, Shankland and Connolly

I don’t remember Andy Robertson as a Celtic youth player but he stood out for Queens in the League 2 games against Rangers in 2012/13 season. I don’t think anyone could have predicted his meteoric rise since.

Of the other youth academies Robbie Crawford and Alan Forrest have been the Ayr United players that caught the eye. The one Morton player that springs to mind is Mark Russell, made is debut at seventeen and well over a hundred appearances. I don’t know what a happened but he is now at Finn Harps in Donegal and still only twenty-four.

Mark Russell now at Finn Harps

Going back a while Danny Griffin was a youth player at St.Johnstone I admired, he maybe suffered being a centre back that was probably deemed small at 5′ 11″. Pretty sure he came over to Rangers as a kid as a former St. Andrew’s Boys Club player. Over three hundred career appearances and twenty-nine caps for Northern Ireland. Keeper Zander Clark who was at Celtic, Rangers and Hamilton Accies before ending up at St.Johnstone and Stevie May were in the same youth team. Chris Kane is still considered promising but is now twenty-five. They have made a real effort in recent years and with Ali McCann and Jason Kerr established first team players it is bearing fruit. Rangers have tried to tempt a couple of players from the Perth club in recent times, succeeding in signing a 2005 in January.

Danny Griffin

Dundee have really been pretty disappointing and I think have kind of gave up on occasions, especially when their near neighbours seemed to succeed in poaching their best players, Paul Dixon and Scott Robertson for example. Kevin McDonald and Craig Forsyth both moved south in 2008 and 2011 respectively which promised a revival. Pickings have been poor since with Kyle Benedictus, Leigton McIntosh, Cammy Kerr and Craig Wighton not living up to early promise.

Leighton McIntosh played at Ibrox this season for Wrexham

That leaves Fife Elite Academy, not sure of the make up these days, but it was dominated by Dunfermline Athletic in the early days. I know that Raith Rovers and Cowdenbeath are part of it, not sure if East Fife are involved. I can’t think of any recent players that have caught my eye, going back a bit there were a few. Lewis Martin and Ryan Williamson were two, but they had been released by Rangers and Celtic respectively. Lewis was a good player at Rangers who I was surprised to see released, He has been a first team regular for a while. A leg break set back Ryan Williamson a bit after receiving rave reviews when he broke through, he is now at Partick Thistle. Nick Phinn and Ryan Thomson were another two that caught the eye as youth players.

Former Ranger Lewis Martin

The intention of the next part was to look at Rangers players who didn’t quite make the first team. As I started to think back and write down names my list was getting bigger and bigger and was soon eighty plus.

I am often asked which players could play in the first team ? You may be surprised that more than half of my list did. After some thought I looked at the players and split them into five categories. At the top would be the obvious successes like Alan McGregor and Barry Ferguson. The second group I also consider to be successes but I know by reading online posts this group would split the Rangers support, this group would include the likes of Charlie Adam and Chris Burke.

Next would come players who played a decent number of games but most wouldn’t consider them a success at Rangers. Steven Pressley, Scott Wilson, Bob Malcolm, Maurice Ross and Stephen Hughes spring to mind. The fourth group would be those that made up to ten appearances. Some of these I knew straight away had played in the first team, John Morrow, Alan Lowing and Steven McLean for example. Others I had to double check, and Alex Walker, Bob Davidson and Darren Fitzgerald all did.

The last group is what I want to focus on, ones I thought had a chance of playing a first team game but didn’t for what ever reason. I have picked ten players in no particular order, this list could have been a lot bigger but I had to make a choice.

For the first player I have chosen you have to go back to the early eighties when John Greig sanctioned the setting up of an Official Rangers Boys Club under the auspices of Bobby Dinnie. At its peak they had teams in three different age groups. One group were undefeated for two years playing in the Scottish Amateur youth leagues, against the likes of Celtic Boys Club, Fir Park Boys Club and Eastercraigs. The front three of the group was John Spencer, Gary McSwegan and Eion Jess, although Jess coming from the north east only played occasionally. In midfield was a player who won’t be familiar to most Rangers fans, he seemed to dominate games and everything went through him, Scott Murray. Along with Spencer and McSwegan he joined Rangers as a youngster but for what ever reason didn’t progress and was away within a year. I think he was briefly at Hamilton Accies but disappeared from the game.

Joe Robertson was a skilful and typically gallus Glasgow teenager and from memory relished playing against Celtic. He left Rangers under a cloud with rumours of a whacky nature. Still made over two hundred appearances with Clydebank, Dumbarton and East Strling.

Roddy Kerr, Joe Robertson and Greg Shields

Another skilful winger and grandson of former Rangers player Ian McMillan, Iain Russell was a player I thought would make a break through. A Man of the Match performance in the 2000 Youth Cup Final despite being on the losing side. Rangers lost 3-5 to Hearts but those at the game would remember Iain’s performance and how he was targeted by a over physical Hearts side, a few picking up yellow cards for fouls on the Rangers winger. I don’t know what happened and why he never managed one game but he went on to play over 450 senior games with a number of clubs, The most significant spells being at Dumbarton, Livingston and Queen of the South. I saw him play and score most recently for Pollok in August.

Iain Russell now at Pollock

Another player who had a significant career in Scotland but injury probably prevented any chance of a first team appearance at Rangers was Peter MacDonald. I remember “Peaso” coming on as a sub in a West Reserve League game at Clydebank as a 14 year old in May 1995. Rangers said they were struggling to field a team and Ally Dawson, Terry Butcher and I think Gordon Smith all came out of retirement to play in the game. Rangers other sub on the night was scout Ewan Chester. He left Rangers for St.Johnstone with the Perth side paying Rangers a fee in excess of £100,000. He averaged around twenty games as season in his time there, which was probably the peak of his career. He is still playing in the Lowland League with East Stirling and is back at Rangers as an academy coach.

Peter MacDonald at Dundee

Stephen Dobbie’s career seemed to be going nowhere, overweight and just released by St.Johnstone, a continued slide down the leagues seemed inevitable. Something or someone instigated a change at Dumbarton and as a result he is closing in on five hundred senior games. I remember Stephen as a really skilful player and thought he had a chance. While at Rangers he had a short spell on loan at Northern Spirit, scoring a goal a game in his three appearances. His turn around at Dumbarton saw him move to Queen of The South and a scoring rate better than a goal every two games won him a move to Swansea City. This would be the peak making nine Premiership appearances for the Welsh club. Now back in Dumfries he has replicated that scoring rate in his second spell at the club.

Another goal for Stephen Dobbie

Cultured midfielder Paul McHale was another that I thought had a chance, after loan spells at St.Mirren and Cowdenbeath he was released and signed for Clyde. His performances their earned him a move to Dundee, three good seasons were brought to a halt with administration for the club and redundancy for Paul. A season each at Stirling Albion and Stenhousemuir followed before dropping out the senior game. He is still involved in football working as an agent.

Paul McHale at Stennie

As a sixteen year old midfielder Peter Leven was on the first team bench on a few occasions but never quite made it onto the pitch. A serious knee injury a year later saw him pretty much on the sidelines for the next two years. On leaving Rangers he joined Kilmarnock and established himself in the side before moving south and playing over 250 games for three clubs. He returned to Kilmarnock as assistant manager to Lee McCulloch and his latest coaching adventure took him to Dynamo Brest in Belarus, as Assistant Head coach, winning the Belarusian Premier League in 2019. He left the Belarusian club in March this year.

Peter Leven at Oxford United

Another who is back at the club as an academy coach but as a player never made the breakthrough is Brian Gilmour. As well as turning out for four Scottish clubs with Ayr United being his best period, Brian played in England with Lincoln City, Finland with FC Haka and Iceland with KA. His career highlight would probably be playing against Brondby in the UEFA Cup for FC Haka.

Coach Brian Gilmour

A favourite of mine at the time was striker Chris Craig, not the biggest and maybe not the quickest but he had a brilliant touch. Chris was from Anderson and I used to park my car in that area for work. I often seen Chris, sometimes in his Rangers training gear, on his own playing keepie uppie in the local swing park. His progress at Rangers was halted by injuries that saw him sidelined for a lengthy periods. After Rangers came brief spells at Dumbarton, Alloa Athletic and Airdrie United. Since then he has alternated between top amateur sides and the Juniors.

Chris Craig

The last of the ten really shouldn’t be featuring here but it is a quirk of the goalkeeping position that Liam Kelly never made a first team appearance. I have watched Liam since Under 13’s and as he got older I thought a first team appearance was inevitable. A loan spell at East Fife saw him win a League Two winners medal, another successful loan spell this time at Livingston followed but that first team debut never came. He moved to Livingston permanently in June 2018, a year later he invoked a release clause to join Queens Park Rangers. Showing initial patience he waited for his chance and is now established as first choice keeper. I have a feeling that Liam’s Rangers story isn’t over and he could be back at the club someday.

Liam Kelly

Once again all this is just my opinion and what I thought of these players as youngsters. Restricting it to the ten I picked was difficult, I could have included three of four times that number.

I feel we have a lot of talent across the age groups in the academy at present. The big question is ten or fifteen years down the line what category will these players find themselves in. In putting together this article I now realise even more how difficult that is to predict.

Opposition Youth Players Part 3

June 6, 2020

In part three I’ll look at players I have see from the four remaining “Elite Academys”, Hearts, Hibs, Kilmarnock and Motherwell. Remember I am writing this on what I remember as youth players and not what they went on to achieve and it is only my opinions.

Hearts:- Over the years I have always had an admiration for Hearts youth setup and Rangers must have agreed. The club took two Hearts players as guests to a youth tournament abroad in the mid 1980’s, Scott Crabbe and Alan McLaren. Both went on to play a significant number of games for Hearts and of course Alan played close to a hundred games for Rangers before injury cut his career short.

A young Scott Crabbe

In 1993 an impressive Hearts side came to Ibrox for the Youth Cup Final and recorded a comfortable win. I believe the starting XI all made at least one first team appearance at Hearts. It included goalkeeper Myles Hogarth dad of current academy goalkeepers Nicky & Jay Hogarth. For me the pick of the squad were Allan McManus, Gary Locke and Kevin Thomas.

Not Nicky or Jay but Myles

Although his defensive colleague Paul Ritchie went on to play for Rangers and Scotland, as youth players I thought Allan McManus was the better player. Although initially doing well at Tynecastle for whatever reason his career waned but he did make around four hundred senior appearances in Scotland. He is currently Head of Youth at St.Mirren.

For me Gary Locke was the pick of this squad but injuries were a major problem throughout his career. Without these injuries i think he could have become a really top player. Despite these career hampering injuries he still played over three hundred games.

Striker Kevin Thomas was the headline grabber and certainly didn’t lack confidence. On the night the Rangers defence struggled against him and he soon made the breakthrough into the Hearts first team. A torn cruciate ligament less than two years later saw him sidelined for two years. It was an injury he would never fully recover from, playing barely fifty senior games after that.

Ian Harty is a name that most won’t be familiar with, he is a couple of years younger than that Youth Cup winning squad. I don’t know Ian but I’m sure when he looks back at his career he must have regrets. An incredibly talented player who had a bit of a reputation and by all accounts not the most dedicated professional. Such was his talent he still made several hundred senior appearances with thirteen clubs as diverse as Albion Rovers and Darlington.

Ian Harty at Stranraer

Hearts were to clinch their second Youth Cup in 1998 with a 2-0 win over Dundee United at Tynecastle. I don’t think that squad was anywhere near as talented as the 1993 squad. The pick for me being current Dundee United manager and full-back Robbie Neilson. Robbie had been a Rangers ‘S’ form as a striker !! The other player a really rated as a youngster was Scott Severin, who went on to have a decent career gaining fifteen Scotland caps.

A physical Hearts side clinched their third Youth Cup win in 2000 with a 5-3 win over Rangers at Hampden. Anyone who was at the game will remember they seemed to target Ian Russell with a few picking up yellow cards for challenges on the Rangers winger. By far and away the pick of that Hearts squad as keeper Craig Gordon, he always looked a top prospect as youth player. Ironically it seems Hearts had their doubts due to his height, him being around 5′ 8″ at sixteen.

Since then there has been a steady stream of really good players coming through Hearts youth teams, Lee Wallace, Christoph Berra, Andy Driver, David Templeton, Callum Patterson, Sam Nicholson. Then there were two top players in the same age group in Jason Holt and Jamie Walker, both were excellent youth players but I felt Holt was a wee bit better.

A few names that I thought may have achieved more are Graham Weir, Gary Glen, Fraser Mullen and Jordan McGhee. Jordan may have suffered from a lack of inches for a centre back and is now at Dundee. Gary Glen did well initially but eventually struggled to establish himself as a regular. Full back Mullen broke into the Hearts team when he was nineteen but don’t think he reached double figures in appearances. On being released he signed for Hibs and made a couple of first team appearances there. Spells at Raith Rovers, East Fife and Cowdenbeath followed before drifting out of the senior game. Diminutive striker Weir was just shy of a goal every two games for Hearts. But he gradually drifted to the juniors via Queen of the South, Raith Rovers, Brechin City, and Stirling Albion.

Graham Weir

With Hearts current approach they won’t be winning another youth cup anytime soon, but that doesn’t concern them. The policy is to push players up the age groups and recently Aaron Hickey, Connor Smith, Connor Logan, Harry Cochrane, Tony McDonald, Chris Hamilton and Andy Irving (a favourite of mine) have played first team football. Former Ranger McKenzie Kirk would have been on the fringes of the U16’s at Rangers, at Hearts he regularly starts for the U18’s.

The bulk of the Hearts 1993 Youth Cup winning squad lost to Man Utd in the 1991 Milk Cup Final. I thought it would of interest to post the Man Utd team from that final.

????? Pollock, Gary Neville, John O’Kane, Colin Murdock, Steven Riley, Keith Gillespie, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Joe Roberts, Robbie Savage, Ben Thornley, Paul Scholes, Mark Rawlinson, K???? Brown.

Over 450 International caps between them.

Hibernian:- Generally speaking Hibs have been a wee bit in the shadow of their neigbours in terms of youth development, although they had a fair bit of success around the millenium with the likes of Scott Brown, Gary O’Connor, Derek Riordan, Steven Whittaker and Steven Fletcher. Yet they were pioneers in the late 70’s / early 80’s when their was a semi official Under 18 league (Rangers didn’t compete in it). They did win the Youth Cup in 1992 but their lineup doesn’t compare to Hearts a year later.

Only Darren Dods and substitute Kevin Harper went on to have extended senior careers. Although Graeme Love and Graeme Donald did make a first team breakthrough.

Kevin Harper

Before their next cup win Lewis Stevenson and Paul Hanlon who was an excellent player at youth level had emerged. Then in 2009 Hibs clinched league and cup double, beating Rangers 2-1 at Hampden with the winner coming in the last minute of injury time. That side included Ally Park released by Rangers and David Wotherspoon released by Celtic. But for me the standout players in the squad where Scott Smith, Callum Booth and Kurtis Byrne.

I thought all three would have achieved something in the game. Scott Smith being most disappointing playing one first team game and only around sixty in the senior game in total. Son of former Celtic player Paul Byrne, Kurtis has toured the Celtic nations, less than ten games at Hibs then spells at Dundalk, Linfield and The New Saints among others. Callum Booth being arguably the most successful playing around fifty games for Hibs and now back in the SPL with St.Johnstone.

Kurtis Byrne at Linfield

There have been a few very good youth players since all have disappointed. Striker Ross Caldwell has moved around and was last seen at a couple of years ago Brechin City. Winger Alex Harris and attacking midfielder Danny Handling are now both at Edinburgh City. Sam Stanton has fared a bit better, after leaving Hibs rallying to have a decent spell at Dundee United before moving to Phoenix Rising FC who play in the USL Championship.

Kilmarnock:- When I think of Kilmanock youth I go back to a game around 1997, it was before Rangers training ground opened and at the time Rangers used Lochburn Park the home of Maryhill Juniors for youth games. It alternated with U15’s one week and U16’s the next.

I cant remember if it was U15’s or U16’s but Kilmarnock beat Rangers 4-1 and three Killie players caught the eye. Firstly it wasn’t “a 4-1 game” due to the performance of Graeme Smith in the Kilmarnock goal. I knew a few scouts at the time and I overhead one asking a prominent Rangers scout “how are Rangers not going for him ?”, we wouldn’t have had to pay any development fee back then. His reply was we’ve got McGregor and Brown, of course referring to Alan McGregor and Mark Brown who were around the same age.

At the other end of the pitch Killie’s small striker ran the Rangers defence ragged scoring twice with the attacking midfielder adding the other two. The striker was Paul di Giacomo and the midfielder was Gary McDonald, I followed both players with interest and they had decent if not spectacular careers.

Well I get this under the radar one out of the way, Kris Boyd. Probably more to do with the fact that he was an out and out goalscorer, against Rangers through the age groups he probably didn’t get loads of chances. I believe he won top scorer/player of the tournament at the Milk Cup one year.

The best Kilmarnock player I have seen playing at youth level is Matthew Kennedy now of Aberdeen. Linked with Rangers he eventually won a move to Everton before returning to Scotland with St.Johnstone.

There are quite a few very good Killie youth players, I’ll start with those with a Rangers connection. Steven Naismith is the only player from Killie’s Youth Cup winning squad to achieve anything in the senior game. I wouldn’t have put him top draw, but was a nuisance and must have been a nightmare to play against even then.

Rory Loy and Barrie McKay, Rangers paid a development fee for Rory and I wouldn’t have argued with that as he looked a top prospect. Something showed in Barrie McKay’s medical that prompted Kilmarnock to withdraw the offer of a contract, anyone who watched his trial period at Rangers would know it was a no brainer to sign him.

Four players released by Rangers that looked really good players at youth level at both clubs in my opinion. They all have been released for being too small/slight. I loved watching winger Chris Johnston who seemed to glide past opponents. He had a good spell at Killie before drifting down the leagues and is now at Clyde. Greg Taylor generally played down a year at Rangers did really well at Kilmarnock before crossing to the dark side. I didn’t see Greg Kiltie or Adam Frizzell too often but enough to express my surprise at their release, both were good players in the Killie system.

Chris Johnston

There have been a few others, Rory McKenzie was always a decent player but grabbed the headlines scoring four of Kilmarnock’s goals in their 5-1 youth cup win over Rangers in November 2012. Neil McGregor was a centre-back on the smallish side who played in the lower leagues. Danny McKay brother of Barrie, never made the first team he played briefly for Ayr United and Arbroath before dropping into the juniors.

Danny McKay

Motherwell:- When Motherwell won the Youth Cup in 2016 it had morphed into an U20 tournament, my view is that to be called the “Youth Cup” it should be U18 max. In saying that there were a few players in that team who caught the eye coming up through the younger age groups. Chris Cadden was probably the pick for me and I was surprised that he didn’t move to a bigger club than Oxford United. Jake Hastie was a couple of years younger and came on as a sub in that final, he was regularly linked with the Old Firm as a young player. The one that came under the radar was David Turbull, I can’t say he caught the eye coming up through the age groups.

Jake Hastie

Another that sort of came under the radar and is arguably one of Motherwell’s best players was James McFadden. As a youngster with that daft wee ponytail he was always going to be noticed, but my early memories of him was as a left-back. Not really sure when the change of position came and what catapulted his career forward.

The other players I thought would a good chance go back as far as Stevie Hammill and Stephen Pearson. One got their big move and it didn’t quite happen for the other although he had a good career. A bit later came Mark Reynolds and Jamie Murphy, two really top academy players who progressed as I expected. More recently I was very impressed with James Scott who pretty quickly was transferred to Hull City.

Mark Reynolds

One player that must look back with a lot of regrets is Paul Slane, just before his move to Celtic I remember one game at Hannah Park, Shotts were he gave Rangers a particularly torrid time. On leaving Celtic a bender in Amsterdam was well documented and he was out of the game after brief spells at Ayr United and Clyde he was out the game.

Paul Slane at Clyde

There is a group of really decent youth players that all went to have careers of sorts. David Clarkson, Shaun Hutchinson, who went from Wallsend Boys Club to Motherwell and is now at Millwall, Lee Erwin, Craig Moore, Bob McHugh, Jack Leitch and Paul Quinn.

A couple of players that moved south early in their career which surprised me. Goalkeeper Alan Martin who was linked with Rangers, moved to Leeds United and centre back Fraser Kerr signed for Birmingham City as a 16 year old. I thought their was better players in their positions at other clubs at the time. Credit to both players as they are still in football, Martin at Global FC in the Philippines and Kerr at Hartlepool United in the National League.

Fraser Kerr

In Part 4 I’ll look at some players who were at clubs who are not in the Elite Academy structure and players at Rangers who I thought had good chance of being first team players but for whatever reason it didn’t happen.