It was the day after the SFA’s Performance Director, Malky Mackay, had officially unveiled the different tiers in ‘Project Brave’ – the controversial plans to overhaul the Scottish youth academy system. I was heading up to McDiarmid Park to catch up with St. Johnstone’s Head of Youth Development, Alistair Stevenson, after the Saints Academy had their ‘Progressive Development’ status confirmed in the radical shake-up.
St. Johnstone will join the likes of Dundee United and Partick Thistle in the second tier, behind the eight clubs who were granted elite status including Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen. It’s a considerable achievement for a club the size of Saints and the amount of resources that they have, and it’s the culmination of many months of hard work for Alistair and his staff.
“It’s been very costly and it’s a huge investment from the club,” he told me, “by meeting the required criteria and making the improvements to becoming a Progressive Development club we’ll receive more funding from the SFA than ever before but there’s still going to be a shortfall and that means it’s the club who has to put up the money.” It’s been very costly and it’s a huge investment from the club.
The project has been criticised by some for being too demanding on Scottish clubs, with many believing that given the current state of the game, teams cannot afford to cough up the money to meet the required standards. Dundee – Saints’ Tayside rivals – is one club that decided not to invest in Project Brave and they will compete in the lowest tier instead.
For Alistair though, he’s delighted that St. Johnstone has invested and although it’s been a bit of a headache for him over the past few weeks trying to make sure that the club has met all of the criteria, he’s now satisfied and looking forward to getting back to nurturing the next generation of talent.
“The criteria are very strict even at the Progressive Development level so we’re delighted we managed to meet all of it. The first box we needed to tick was to have three full-time members of staff at the Academy, which we now have. We are required to have a full-time Head of Youth Development, Head of Coaching and Head of Sports Science.
“So straight away that’s a drain on resources but we put that in place. The next requirement was to have access to an indoor 3G pitch which was a difficult one for us to work towards. There’s nothing like that in Perth, and the ones closest to us didn’t meet the requirements in terms of size.
“Just when it looked like we weren’t going to be able to comply, someone tipped me off about a facility down in Grangemouth so I went and checked it out and managed to secure that two days before the deadline!
“One of the biggest drains on the resources is the physio costs. We now must have a working physio on every training night and for every team on a match day – that’s certainly not cheap but again we have put this into place and that meant we were able to comply and become a Progressive Development club which is great for St. Johnstone.”
Project Brave will also see Scottish youth football move to a summer season, and the kids will now play between March and December rather than in parallel to the senior game. It’s the biggest shake-up of the academies for years and the hope is that it will help Scotland to produce better players to aid the national team in the future.
And it’s not as if Alistair is unfamiliar with progressive ideas. Since returning for his second spell as Head of Youth Development at McDiarmid Park, he’s done his own overhaul of the Saints Academy’s practices in the hope that the club will produce more home-grown talent to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Stevie May.
He was involved in the successful Hibs set-up that has produced players like Scott Brown and Steven Fletcher, and returned to St. Johnstone five-years-ago with new ideas which he hopes will begin to bear fruit in the years to come. During his first spell at McDiarmid, Alistair helped produce a conveyor belt of talent through the youth academy and that’s what he would like to see happen again.
“When I was here the first time around, I think I counted something close to 30 players making it into the first-team through the youth set up. The likes of Danny Griffin, Stuart McCluskey, Keigan Parker, Kieran McAnespie and Charlie King all made it through the Saints Academy, so it was an endless stream of players breaking into the team.
“So, when I came back I wanted to get that conveyor belt running again. For a quick fix, I had to go out and snatch some players from other academies to get the ball rolling. We got Liam Gordon from Hearts, Aaron Comrie from Celtic, Mark Hurst from Livingston – we just needed to start getting players in and around the first-team.
“The long-term project was obviously to start to change the way the younger age groups were run and now that’s starting to show signs of paying off. The ones who were U12s and U13s when I came back are now U20s and full-time, and the signs are very positive moving forward.
“The great thing is that about 50% of the current crop that are coming through are local Perthshire lads. And that’s something we’re really delighted to see – we’re always trying to find the best local talent.”
According to Alistair, there are plenty of reasons for Saints fans to be optimistic about the future, with a number of the current youngsters in and around the national set-up. The great thing is that about 50% of the current crop that are coming through are local Perthshire lads - we’re always trying to find the best local talent.
“We’ve got a young local lad Gregor Donald – from Bridge of Earn – who has been in the Scotland U17 squad and managed to get himself a goal as well which was great and he gave a very good account of himself. Then there’s Jason Kerr, who is currently out on-loan at Queen of the South, he was called up to the U21 squad and even though he didn’t play it’s still great that he is in that mix.
“There are a number of boys in the academy who are on the periphery of the Scotland squads across a number of age groups so I think looking to the future we can have a bit of confidence that things are starting to look good and that we’re on the right track.”
While it’s always Alistair and his team’s ambition to help of all of the youngsters to become professional footballers, the reality is that’s just never going to happen. It’s a very difficult game to make it in, and the fact is that most of the kids in the academy won’t go on to play full-time and make a career in football.
With that in mind, Saints’ Head of Youth Development values education and learning, so that the boys who don’t make it can still go on to have successful careers in other areas or can potentially go on to higher education.
“We encourage kids to stay on at school and to do fifth year. If they can get some Highers or other qualifications it can give them something to fall back on in the future if they don’t quite make the grade.
“They are basically in full-time anyway when they train in the evenings and come to us all day on a Friday as part of the day release programme we have with schools. So, they can actually get the best of both worlds and we want the ones who are academic to do that. There are some kids who just aren’t interested in school and can end up being disruptive, so if that’s the case then we will take them in full-time at 16.
“If they can get themselves some Highers it can help them to apply for scholarships to go on to further education, or it can just help them to find work outside of football if they are only good enough to play part-time or at junior level.
“The ones who aren’t academic, we have started to put them through what is like a modern apprenticeship scheme. We’ll send them to the primary schools to work with the kids, put them through their coaching qualifications, referee licenses and such. We want to do all we can to make sure that if they aren’t going to make it that they still have the opportunity to gain employment in other areas.”
In what has been arguably the most successful period in the club’s history, it has been difficult for the Saints Academy players to find first-team opportunities. However, this season the likes of Aaron Comrie and Liam Gordon have already featured, and Alistair remains optimistic that more of his youngsters will start to knock of the senior squad.
“There are a number of exciting young talents coming through and potentially getting close to getting some first-team opportunities. Young Euan O’Reilly played against Sunderland in pre-season and made a good impression, and when the other lads see that and the likes of Liam and Aaron getting involved it gives them the confidence that they can do it too.
“The more players we can get into the first-team the better! We’ve had a fantastic period under Tommy Wright with top six finishes, European competition and of course winning the Scottish Cup. When things are going so well, the senior players are winning matches and the fans are happy, it can be difficult for the academy lads to get chances.
“Hopefully there will be a few more chances for some of the boys this year, and then it’s up to them to prove themselves at that level and give the manager something to think about. I know that we’ve got some extremely talented lads in the set-up and they’ve proven they can compete against the best at youth level.
“We’ve played tournaments against the so-called big guns and beat them, and we’ve even played and defeated Manchester United’s youth team too. They’ve shown they have the ability to compete with the best at their age group and I think it shows that as a club, our youth academy is moving in the right direction.”
The St. Johnstone Youth Academy would love to hear from any local businesses who'd be keen to provide sponsorship to any of the clubs youth teams or players. For more information on how you can sponsor the Academy, call the club on 01738 459090 or email email@example.com.
Zander Clark has been with St. Johnstone since 2008 and over the past few seasons he's established himself as one of the top goalkeepers in Scotland.
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