As I’ve mentioned directly or indirectly several times over the past few months there is quite a bit of young footballing talent in Scotland both domestically and in the various “age group” national teams, talent that, even if only a portion of it makes it to the senior national team, could make a great deal of difference in Scotland’s future. I like to think that this situation will only get better as the various club teams and youth national teams adopt the recommendations set out in the McLeish Report. A couple of days ago I highlighted one of these young players, Islam Feruz, but today I’d like to take a bit broader look at Scotland’s future.
This seems particularly appropriate given that Scotland’s 0-2 result against Belgium earlier in the week effectively ended Scotland’s hopes of qualifying for Brazil 2014. Yes, yes, now all-but-mathematically-eliminated Scotland will likely string together a series of improbable results that does almost enough to create a miraculous finish, but, in the end they won’t qualify- they’ll finish third. All the good results between now and then will do is to allow all of those involved to rewrite the history of the qualification process to their own ends and that won’t fix anything. In fact, it will make things worse by perpetuating the current underachieving cycle in which Scotland finds itself mired.
With that in mind I don’t think it’s too early to take a look at the players who are likely to be involved in qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. There are two reasons to do this, one sentimental, and one practical. First, by looking at the prospects for 2018 I don’t have to sit on the couch and sob quietly about what has taken place (thus far) in the qualification process for Brazil. Second, the vast majority of players involved in the current failure will be gone by 2018, or at least past the age of 31 or 32, which is generally the end of the line for most international players. Only three players on yesterday’s roster were 25 years old or less.
With the current senior squad at it’s footballing peak in terms of age (as sad as that might be) it makes sense to look at those players who will be between 26-32 years of age in 2018, or those players currently between the ages of roughly 16 and 25, a “U25” squad, if you will. Before setting my list before you it seems necessary to get a few things out of the way. First, that there are surely other players in this age group who are eligible to play for Scotland and are not on this list and who will seem like “no-brainers” by the time that six years have passed. Second, that most of these players will “level off” before they ever get a sniff of the national team, that’s simply what happens and there’s no shame in it. Finally, I need to set out some sort of “benchmarks” for the players I have selected. Here they are:
If you read between the lines you’ll not have to ask, “Why there are no Rangers (Third Division, fourth tier) on this list?”- they generally don’t meet the criteria. So, with apologies to Darren Cole, Ross Perry, Kyle Hutton, David Templeton, Lewis Macleod, Barry MacKay, Kal Naismith, and Lee Wallace, here is my “Scotland Futures” squad, starting with those players who have already earned a full national team cap.
Age: 22 Midfielder Aston Villa Scotland (11)
Age: 25 Midfielder Derby County Scotland (1)
Age: 25 Defender Huddersfield Town Scotland (2)
Age: 25 Midfielder West Browich Albion Scotland (8)
Age: 25 Forward Sunderland Scotland (9)
Age: 21 Midfielder Celtic Scotland (7)
Age: 23 Forward Blackburn Rovers Scotland (3)
Age: 20 Defender Blackburn Rovers Scotland (3)
Age: 25 Midfielder Wigan Athletic Scotland (8)
Age: 22 Forward Blackburn Rovers Scotland (4)
Age: 25 Midfielder Norwich City Scotland (8)
Age: 20 Defender Liverpool Scotland (5)
All things being equal, that’s really not a bad group of players, most are with Premier League clubs (though a few of those are on loan to lower clubs), a few are in the Championship, and James Forest is at Celtic in the Scottish Premier League. With the possible exception of the newly-reborn Steven Fletcher this is not a “star” in the group (though Rhodes’ trajectory seems to have him destined for big things), but there plenty of players in this group who, as the Scots say, “will do a job of work.” Dorrans and McArthur are two players who stand out in this regard- blow the whistle and you’ll get 90 minutes of hard graft from both of them whether the opponent is a pub side or Brazil.
Just as important as the quality of the clubs where these players ply their trade is the fact that despite their still relatively tender ages, many of these players have already played in hundreds of senior matches as they have worked their way towards international football. The best examples of this being Craig Bryson (300+), Paul Dixon and Robert Snodgrass (250+) Graham Dorrans, David Goodwillie, James McArthur, and Jordan Rhodes (200+). This is a young group, but not an inexperienced one.
There is also a nice mix of positions included in the list- with one glaring exception. There is not a goalkeeper to be found. There are plenty of quality Scottish goalkeeper around, but there are very few of them in this age group. This means that either one of the current goalkeepers (McGregor, Gordon, Marshall, etc.) is going to have to hang around for Russia in 2018, or a goalkeeper currently splitting his time between football and “Call of Duty” is going to have to emerge as the “Number 1” at some point in the next 3-5 years.
Finally, there are two other players currently on the fringes of the full national team who find themselves in that little-known and purgatory-like group called “B Internationals.” 23 year old Scott Arfield of League One’s Huddersfield Town has made over 200 appearances in Scotland and England, has had great success at the U21level, but has yet to break through into the senior side. The other is Leigh Griffiths, a 22 year old forward currently on loan at SPL side Hibernian from Championship side Wolveerhampton Wanderers. Both players have appeared for Scotland’s “B team” on one occasion.
In the next installment we’ll take a look at those players who have firmly established themselves in Scotland’s U21 side and who appear to be on track to make their debuts with the senior team over the next few years.