Feb 072013

The Scottish Premier League has received plenty of criticism in recent times for the way in which the game is played in the country. Lacking the caliber of player it once had Scottish football is no longer an enjoyable spectacle and has been in decline for quite some time. The national team’s ongoing failure to reach a major international tournament coupled with clubs’ shortage of financial muscle compared to other outfits around the continent has reiterated the importance of grassroots football and signing young players to sell at a more handsome price. Whilst Scottish clubs aren’t renowned for their state of the art academies which the likes of Ajax and Barcelona have or for producing world class talents such as Lionel Messi and Neymar youngsters are being given a chance to shine in the SPL and there a few talents who have certainly caught the eye.

One player who has been very impressive during his short spell in the SPL is Celtic’s Victor Wanyama. The Kenyan is the most sought after youngster in the division and will soon be destined for greater challenges with English Premier League sides Arsenal and Manchester United keen on his signature. Signed in the summer of 2011 from Beerschot AC in Belgium for around £900,000 Wanyama has instantly become a fans favorite at Celtic Park with his dominant performances domestically and in Europe. The 21-year-old was a standout performer especially during the months of September till December in the 2011/12 season when the Hoops were experiencing a difficult period dropping many points which saw Glasgow rivals Rangers take a 15 point lead in the league. However his versatility as a centre-back as well as a central midfielder along with his sheer physical strength saw him dominating games, dictating the tempo with his passing attributes, assisting and scoring important goals in big games. He firmly established himself as an influential part of Celtic’s spine. By January Celtic overtook Rangers in the league table and went on to lift the title with Wanyama at the heart of the success. From then the former Beerschot man has gone from strength to strength- literally. He has once again been important for the Park head men domestically thus far in 2012/13 but has also displayed his qualities in the Europe. The Europa League the previous season was another competition Wanyama excelled in but the Champions League has brought out the best in the player. For a young man he has shown a great level of maturity playing in a tough position against some of the best players around the continent and was key to the Bhoys’ entry into the competition and qualification from the group stages producing fine displays sitting in front of the back four particularly against the crème de la crème of Barcelona where he scored the opener in Celtic’s historic victory. The midfielder has played more than 70 games for the club scoring 12 goals so far. For Kenya, Wanyama has more than 20 caps making his debut at just fifteen-years-old and was shortlisted for the African Young Player of The Year award in 2012.It’s been interesting seeing this young man develop from a player who at first was making substitute appearances to becoming a vital part in the team in a short space of time controlling games defensively and offensively from a holding midfield position. Manager Neil Lennon has said the Kenyan is good enough to play for the likes of Barcelona and is worth £25 million but one thing is for sure Celtic will find it difficult to keep a hold of their star man.

James Forrest is one of the hottest prospects in Scottish football and is certainly the brightest homegrown talent the country has produced in some time. Described as “the light in the darkness” of Scottish football by SFA Performance Director Mark Wotte it was clear from the outset Forrest had a bright future ahead of him. Asa youngster working under Neil Lennon in the Celtic reserves Forrest’s performances were eye catching and following Lennon’s appointment as interim boss after the sacking of Tony Mowbray it was only a matter of time before the Scot was given a chance to prove himself at first team level. He burst onto the scene scoring a debut goal in a win over Motherwell at Celtic Park in May 2010. However it took until the summer for us to see the forward in action again in the Emirates Cup during pre-season. He certainly made his mark on the two games played, taking experienced players on with no fear, skipping past them with ease and playing with tremendous confidence for a youngster. His performances won him the Young Player of the Tournament. Immediately comparisons were drawn between himself and former Celt Aiden McGeady who attracted attention in a similar manner when he made the step up to the first team. McGeady was a crowd pleaser, a box full of tricks, who was comfortable playing on either side and he developed very well becoming an important player for the Hoops. The Irishman also won Scotland’s player of the Year in 2008 eventually earning a lucrative move to Russia. But- for me- Forrest is better. He’s an old fashioned winger, utilising his pace to beat players with his first thought being to get the ball in the box. Furthermore the 21-year-old picks the right moment to take defenders down the line or to cut inside as he’s good with both feet. Compared to McGeady, the former youth team player is more clinical in front of goal already almost half way towards beating the Spartak Moscow man’s 37 goals for the Bhoys. In the modern game wingers as direct as Forrest are hard to come by but as he becomes more experienced a more free role-something Lennon is working on now- will help him add more attributes to his game. Since his debut Forrest has made 86 appearances for the team he supported as a boy. On an international level he has progressed through Scotland’s U16’s, U19’s U21’s and is now a full international after making his debut against the Republic of Ireland in 2011. The one downside to this bright prospect is his unfortunate injury problems. This season in particular has been curtailed because of a niggling hamstring injury which has caused problems over the last couple of seasons. This is something the player and the medical team at Lennox town will have to address to ensure he can play to his full potential on a regular basis without facing long spells out especially as he begins to pick up form. FIFA last year put Forrest in the list of top thirteen players to watch and after receiving four accolades for young player of the year in Scotland he remains one to track the progress of.

Another signing Neil Lennon made in 2011 was Adam Matthews on a free transfer from Cardiff City. The Welsh full back-like Wanyama- was relied upon heavily during Celtic’s poor run of form last season but impressed as the Hoops fought back to overhaul Rangers. He became a regular keeping Mark Wilson then Mikael Lustig out of the team featuring 38 times. However the 21-year-old has looked much better for the champions this season already making 32 appearances. Matthews’ pace is his biggest attribute allowing him to take part in the play going forward adding another dimension to the Celtic attack in the 3-5-2 formation Lennon has adopted this campaign. His final cross is an area which has got better but could still improve as well as dead ball situations but the former Cardiff man has added goals to his game netting three times so far and it’s evident that he’s been shooting more to make the Celtic forward approach more menacing. We mustn’t forget his duty as a defender and he’s one of the toughest in the SPL. His afore-mentioned pace makes it difficult for wingers to get the better of him and his versatility has been invaluable for the Hoops- especially on the night he kept Messi and Pedro quiet when Barcelona visited Glasgow. Adam Matthews has a long way to go before he’s the complete full-back but on the evidence so far he’s got the quality to go far in the game. For now he’ll have to settle for the best full/wing-back in Scotland.

Dundee United are one of the few teams in the SPL to have a number of young talents catching the eye at the same time. One of those players is striker Johnny Russell. A graduate of the development system the 22-year-old made his debut in May2007 against Falkirk but struggled to make any impact the following season. In the 2008/09 season Russell was sent out on loan to Forfar Athletic until January but returned to score his first senior goal for the Arabs in the Scottish Cup before extending the loan at the lower league outfit. After another loan spell this time at Raith Rovers in 2009/10 it took until the next campaign to see his true ability. As he became more of a regular and created a good understanding with Jon Daly and David Goodwillie he built a reputation for being a lively forward who is very sharp and a constant nuisance for defenders to mark netting nine times that season. It took the departure of strike partner Goodwillie the next term to give Russell the freedom to express himself on the pitch and become the player that is attracting interest from clubs south of the border. He began to play as a no.10 playmaker dictating the United attack with his skill, pace and clever movement. This tactical adjustment has made the Scot more dangerous and more than just an out and out striker presenting him with more opportunities at goal. Russell’s scoring figures continue to improve. He hit the back of the net 14 times in 43 outings during 2011/12 which has already been bettered this season with 16 strikes in 30 appearances. It’ll be interesting to see whether Johnny Russell remains a Dundee United player after the summer transfer window. Having come on leaps and bounds and at a mature age I think the best move for Russell would be away from Tannadice to continue his development.

Gary Mackay-Steven is another exciting Dundee United player for the future. Signed from Airdrie United in the summer 2011the youngster has been quick to make a positive impression at Tannadice as his silky skills get the fans on the edge of their seats. Every time Mackay-Steven receives the ball he immediately wants to run at the opposition putting the defence on the back-foot and also helping the Arabs to play on the swift counter attack. It’s easy to understand why the former Liverpool youngster is a hit with the United fans as his creativity as a playmaker coming inside to link up with team-mates Russell and Jon Daly is just as effective as his traditional wing play hugging the touchline and beating full-backs with an effective cross at the end of the run which he has displayed on the biggest occasions in games against Rangers at Ibrox and even on the European stage versus Dinamo Moscow. The ex Airdrie man achieved 11 assists in 2011/12 and has played 49 games scoring nine goals so far in the city of discovery. Mackay-Stevens’ performances earned him a call-up to the Scotland Under 21’s where he was given his first cap. The 22-year-old like James Forrest captivates the audience as their main aim is to go forward with the ball and clever attack minded players should be the type Scotland aims to produce in order to bring more people to football grounds.

Scottish football is nowhere near the level it was once at but providing youngsters with opportunities is the way forward to improve the state of the game, attract wider interest and bring some much needed finance to clubs. The five examples above are evidence that young players whether bought from elsewhere or brought through youth systems can be a success in the SPL and have the ability to play in far more competitive and stronger leagues around Europe thus more teams as well as the SFA should pull together to improve grassroots football in the country and allow quality starlets to develop and bring more credibility to Scotland’s national sport.

Written By Ameen Rabbani (272)

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