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Scottish football, Brexit and a talent drain to England that has led to scouts being banned

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The Scotland team opening Euro 2024 against hosts Germany are the trailblazers who ended the country’s 23-year wait for major tournament football by qualifying for two in succession. Together, they represent the nation’s best collection of talent in more than two decades.

It is a 26-man squad slanted towards English football, with Premier League and Championship players vastly outnumbering those at Scottish Premiership clubs.

Had Aaron Hickey, Nathan Patterson, Ben Doak and Lyndon Dykes not been injured, the English columns could be even higher. Were it not for Lewis Ferguson’s knee injury, there would have been a tick in the box for Italy’s Serie A too.

But it is a squad predominantly made in Scotland. Of the 21 Scottish-born players, only Brighton midfielder Billy Gilmour and Norwich City defender Grant Hanley started their professional careers in England rather than in their homeland.

They are the two outliers but, as a steady stream of Scottish teenagers continue to move south of the border, will this be the last generation for whom that is the case?

When Britain’s European Union freedom of movement rights ceased on January 1, 2021, as a consequence of Brexit, it meant no players under the age of 18 could be signed from overseas. Almost overnight, the Scottish market became more attractive to English clubs and, at the time, The Athletic heard from Scottish sides who feared an exodus.

It led to some Scottish clubs offering ‘pre-pro contracts’ — undated forms positioned as informal commitments to tie players down — to 14-year-olds before they are officially eligible to sign a professional contract at 16.

While the numbers moving to England may not have been quite as dizzying as feared, the theory has proven correct, as close to 30 players under 18 have moved in just over three years.

There has been less traffic with the 2008-born age group as it is seen as weaker than others but this week alone three moves have been confirmed to The Athletic.

Ceiran Loney, Partick Thistle’s youngest-ever player, is set to join Everton this summer after trialling at Brighton and other clubs. Fellow 16-year-old AJ Doyle has agreed a deal to move from Celtic to Derby County, while 17-year-old Rocco Friel is leaving Hearts for Queens Park Rangers.

Scottish under-18s to England since Brexit (Jan 2021)

Player

  

From

  

To

  

Date

  

Vincent Angelini

Celtic

Watford

July 2021

Kerr Smith

Dundee United

Aston Villa

Jan 2022

Charlie McArthur

Kilmarnock

Newcastle

July 2022

Rory Wilson

Rangers

Aston Villa

July 2022

Ewan Simpson

Motherwell

Aston Villa

July 2022

Ben Doak

Celtic

Liverpool

July 2022

Frankie Dean

Celtic

Burnley

Aug 2022

Rory Mahady

Celtic

Leeds

Sep 2022

Jevan Beattie

Motherwell

Sheff Utd

Feb 2023

Dylan Reid

St Mirren

Crystal Palace

Feb 2023

Josh McDonald

Hamilton

Leeds

July 2023

Ethan Laidlaw

Hibs

Brentford

July 2023

Lewis Pirie

Aberdeen

Leeds

July 2023

Gabe Forsyth

Hamilton

Norwich

Jul 2023

Ali Gould

Motherwell

Watford

Aug 2023

Aidan Borland

Celtic

Aston Villa

Aug 2023

Cormac Daly

Hamilton

Nottingam Forest

Sep 2023

Ryan One

Hamilton

Sheff Utd

Sep 2023

Evan Anderson

St Mirren

Brentford

Sep 2023

Murray Campbell

St Mirren

Burnley

Sep 2023

Evan Easton

Celtic

Sheff Utd

Sep 2023

Jamie Newton

Rangers

Nottingam Forest

Jan 2024

Callan McKenna

Queens Park

Bournemouth

Feb 2024

AJ Doyle

Celtic

Derby

tbc

Rocco Friel

Hearts

QPR

tbc

Ceiran Loney

Partick Thistle

Everton

tbc

Most of these players had not made their senior debut or had a handful of appearances before moving, meaning they are leaving the Scottish game well before they can leave an imprint on it.

“The interesting thing will be: is that a good thing or a bad thing?” says Scottish Football Association (SFA) chief executive Ian Maxwell, speaking to The Athletic earlier this year.

“We won’t know that for another decade. When you speak to the Croatian FA and even the Belgian FA, they were clear that, while they wanted performance schools, they also wanted their young talent to go over to England and be developed there.”

The case for staying in Scotland is that players can gain experience in an environment they know and then step up when they have developed more, a phased approach that most of the current national team squad can vouch for.

Andy Robertson played for Queen’s Park and Dundee United, racking up 87 appearances across two seasons before heading to Hull City aged 20 and then on to Liverpool; Kieran Tierney was a key figure in four successive title triumphs at Celtic, playing 170 times in all competitions and becoming the club’s youngest captain, before moving to Arsenal in 2019, aged 22, for a record fee of £25million ($32m).


Kieran Tierney is an example of a player who established himself in Scotland before moving to England (Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)

Scott McKenna came through the ranks at Aberdeen, spending time on loan at Ayr United and Alloa Athletic, before he became a mainstay of the team and left for Nottingham Forest aged 23; Ryan Porteous spent five seasons as a regular at Hibernian before he headed south to Watford last January at 23.

A product of Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Dundee United’s academies, Stuart Armstrong went from Celtic to Southampton at 26; St Mirren alumni John McGinn and Kenny McLean moved from Hibernian to Aston Villa and Aberdeen to Norwich City at 23 and 26 respectively; Ryan Christie, having moved from Inverness Caledonian Thistle to Celtic with 18 months at Aberdeen as a bridge, switched to Bournemouth aged 26 for £1.5m and is a regular starter.

Their levels have improved since moving to a higher standard of football in the Premier League but, on average, they made the move south at the age of 24.

To encourage young Scottish players to reject the money and glamour, agents say their players have to be shown the path to first-team football will be expedited by staying put.

Research by CIES Football Observatory shows the Scottish Premiership gives the fourth-lowest percentage of first-team minutes to club-trained players (who have been at the club for at least three seasons between the age of 15 and 21), at just 7.2 per cent. Only Turkey, Greece and Italy rank lower.

Only five Scottish academy products under the age of 21 played more than 1,000 minutes in the Premiership last season: Motherwell’s Lennon Miller, Aberdeen’s Connor Barron, Dundee’s Lyall Cameron, Kilmarnock’s David Watson and Ross County’s Josh Reid.

In the past six seasons, 44 players have passed that barrier in at least one season but few have followed up their breakthrough by becoming a mainstay.

“There aren’t enough young Scottish players playing in the Premiership right now,” says Maxwell. “The minutes are not what they were.

“We are looking at what best practice looks like across Europe but it’s not just a lift and lay. People talk about Croatia but they get their player abroad at a young age. There needs to be a Scottish solution specific to us.”

Several sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, point to the lack of provision for players transitioning from academy football into the first team.

Rangers attempted to bridge the gap between academy and first team by withdrawing from the youth league, creating a B team and travelling around Europe playing top opposition.

Along with Celtic and later Hearts, they then paid to join the Scottish Lowland League — the country’s fifth division, one level below the professional ranks — to expose their youngsters to matches against men, but Rangers pulled out of it last year as they want to be placed at a higher level in the pyramid.

“That is the advantage the English clubs have: PL2 and the under-21 league,” says a coach with years of experience at Scottish and English academies.

“It’s not perfect as it lacks physicality but it is a level that simply doesn’t exist in Scotland. In PL2, you’re facing carbon copies of wingers who are so athletic and skilful they’re like regens of first-team players — unlike anything they face in Scotland.

“If you go down early enough and don’t break through, it is still beneficial. With the facilities and level of competition, they develop at a quicker rate and can come out at 18 or 19 ready for first-team football.

“The problem in Scotland is that players are sent on loan but they don’t play football that is conducive to development. If they switched to an under-17s league and an under-19s league it would give the players an extra year to develop.”

Football is a short career that can be ended by injury or a struggle to transition from youth to senior football.

Playing for a Premier League or Championship club increases a player’s chances of staying in the professional pyramid if they are released. However, in Scotland, many highly-rated teenagers end up playing part-time within a few years due to there being only around two dozen full-time clubs in the country.

An agent who has done cross-border deals says guaranteeing a career is his priority but rejects the notion that money is the main driver in deals for the elite players.

“At 16, they can only go down as a scholar and can’t sign their first pro deal until 17,” he says. “Outside the ‘big six’, the top ones can get anywhere up to £2,500-£3,000 a week but the average is probably sitting at £800-£1,600.

“It’s not money, the biggest thing about going down is the games programme. It’s not good enough in Scotland. If you’re a lad at a Scottish club who is too good for the under-18s but not ready for the first team, how do you progress?

“I had a boy who could have gone at 16 but he stayed and regrets it. He was promised game time but he wasn’t playing under-18s either so was training Monday to Thursday and then sitting on the first-team bench, which was killing his development.

“Another boy I took down at 16 is flying and his club say they have never seen a player transform his physical numbers in a year like he has.

“The games programme, the individual programme, the nutrition, the athleticism and even the education programme is far greater.

“If you’re going to play at a young age in Scotland, they should stay, but if you’re going to be a longer-term project I’m not sure Scotland is the place for you.”

The difference in athleticism is cited as one major difference between the two nations.

“We look at the Scottish market but typically the profile of player they have is similar to what we’ve already got, so we’re not hitting it too hard,” says a Premier League academy director.

Ireland is a more diverse talent pool and they have things we don’t have.”

If a player does leave before signing a professional contract, the English club is liable to pay training compensation set by FIFA. The standard cross-border compensation fee is €130,000 (£110,000; $140,000) but most agents and clubs go through the front door, which sees the Scottish club ensure they earn more in add-ons and sell-on clauses.

That approach has led to clubs, outside of the Old Firm pair of Rangers and Celtic, becoming more open to allowing their players to go on trial at clubs in England if they are keen to move.


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But one club has recently stopped Scottish scouts and agents from attending matches, so they cannot talk to their players. Another major club has banned English scouts and agents from attending any games at under-14 level or below to make it harder for clubs to track top talents early.

Many English sides did not have a dedicated scout in Scotland and would rely on agents for tip-offs but that is largely a thing of the past. Some of the bigger clubs now have two. One head of academy recruitment from a Premier League top-six club has been seen at games this season.

An agent with experience of this particular market says it has led to an influx of agents, estimating there are as many as 60 active in Scotland now, all looking to sign up the next big thing.

One English club scout says parents at bigger clubs have become so aware of the trend that they are sending video clips to scouts to try to get their son a move.

It is a market in which the ‘next Billy Gilmour’ is always being chased. Scouts can already reel off the names of their next targets: Lewis Carrol, Fletcher Boyd and Alfie Bavidge at Aberdeen; Conor Daly, Aidan Taylor, Rocco Di Giacomo and Conall Glancy at Celtic; Oliver Goodbrand, Cameron Fernie, Jack Caldwell, Aiden McCallion and Aiden Crilly at Rangers; Jackson Barr at Queen’s Park, Alfie Hutchison at Hearts, Ally Graham at Dundee, Jamie Forrest at Dundee United, Ben Stoddart at St Mirren, Callan Hamill at St Johnstone and Cole Burke at Kilmarnock.

The question is: will they stay or will they go?

(Top photo: Ross MacDonald/SNS Group via Getty Images)

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