After a tumultuous summer, Scottish football has slowly stumbled back towards normality. Four weeks ago, the Ramsdens Cup marked the season’s first competitive matches and although last season’s winners Falkirk were unable to progress to the quarter-finals after losing 1-0 to Rangers last week, the game still showcased the young players set to spearhead an assualt on the First Division championship.
These players are part of the most lauded youth academy in the country. Eight years ago, a team of Ross Wilson, Chief Executive George Craig and Head of Youth Development Eddie May implemented a model which has set the benchmark for producing young players in Scotland. The strategy came to a head last season with victories against Rangers and Dundee United in the League Cup, and an exceptional performance against Celtic in the same competition’s semi-final.
Wilson, who recently joined Huddersfield Town as their Head of Operations, was central to the restructuring of Falkirk’s youth and education setup. One of the links forged under his tenure was with the University of Stirling, where the first team now train on a full-time basis under Steven Pressley. Wilson, a graduate of the university, knows the importance of increasing the number of connections within the local Falkirk and Stirlingshire communities.
“In terms of our youth structure, we basically had a blank sheet of paper,” Wilson said. “A lot of good work had been done in previous years at the club, but what we had to do was to structure the youth setup, so we had a development pathway and we created the junior academy, middle academy and senior academy.
“We brought in a lot of new staff and some of them are still there, they are excellent members of the coaching staff. We included a sports science provision into the department and went to, in my opinion, the best providers in the country, the University of Stirling. We began a relationship with their Sports Science department – that developed at facility level – and now, there is full-blown partnership between the two organisations.
“One of the really important things at Falkirk is the culture we set, the environment we look to create and that’s one of the massive positives. We have a real hard-working culture and everybody knows what this is all about. It was important by bringing in Craig MacPherson two years ago as the Head of Youth Development that we had someone who understood that.
“Whenever I speak to Steven [Pressley], we always want to set the right culture at the club. You never see any of the Falkirk lads in any scandals, even at a local level or in the local media. They understand what it means to play for Falkirk and what it means to represent the club away from the pitch as well.”
In 2004, as an ambitious 22-year-old, Wilson took up the role of Education and Welfare Officer at the Falkirk Stadium and created Scottish football’s first scholarship system. It is now being replicated across the country in Glasgow, Motherwell, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen. Wilson and then Head of Youth Development, Eddie May, had modelled the structure on a successful programme in Holland to create the Falkirk School of Football.
“Three years ago,” continues Wilson, “We entered a partnership with the Scottish FA and started what we called the Falkirk School of Football at Graham High. Even the likes of Craig Sibbald, for example, came from within that, as well as a few others. It’s really important and it’s now something that Watford are leading the way in to comply with the new EPPP policies in place.
“Falkirk and Celtic were the first two clubs in Scotland to have done that and it is great to have been at the forefront of something. In the long-term, it can only be something that will benefit Scottish football. The one thing I have always said, Falkirk have always done well at youth development, but there are other clubs who done some excellent work too.
“I don’t think Hearts, for example, get enough credit for what they have done at youth development level, probably because there is always something else to talk about at Tynecastle. Equally, Hibernian have always done well. Perhaps it’s just part of our culture in Scotland, but we always forget the good examples at youth level and we would rather focus explicitly on the negatives.”
Since Wilson took up the role Head of Football Development in 2009, Falkirk has produced and sold on talents including Scott Arfield, Darren Barr, Liam Craig and, more recently, Murray Wallace who joined Huddersfield Town in January before spending the remainder of last season on-loan at the Bairns. However, backed by Pressley’s determined work ethic, Falkirk are currently looking at the most precocious young talent to have come through the club.
Craig Sibbald, Jay Fulton and Kieran Duffie seem almost certain to earn a move away from Scotland over the next 12 to 24 months. David White, Falkirk’s general Manager, knows the graduates of their prestigious youth academy provide a potentially vital income stream to the club.
“We are now seeing the fruits of the system with kids coming all the way through to the first team,” White said. “Last season, we played on average about four players every match under the age of 19, and it’s really paying off for us. As well as putting them in the first team, the policy is also to put them in the shop window so we can move them on. The club now tries to break-even every year from a financial point of view and if we can sell on players, that results in us making a profit.
“To put that into perspective, two seasons ago, we lost about £1m at Falkirk and now this year we are making a profit of around £250,000. It has been a remarkable turnaround and that is down to good financial management and also, this policy of bringing the players through from the academy.
“Motherwell were already projecting before the Rangers fiasco to lose nearly £500,000 last year because their income was about £4.3m and their expenditure was £4.8m. You can’t run a business like that, you need to get the books balanced at the end of the year and hopefully player sales and cup runs can bolster that. When we dropped out of the SPL two years ago, we had to take £1m off our player budget and we released about 18 players so I think you will find that other clubs will need to do the same.
“It can’t be seen as a one-off windfall when these players come through and you still need to fill up the pipeline at U-10s level. We put a huge focus on scouting in Central Scotland at this level and we aim to get young players from Glasgow, Edinburgh and others coming through at Falkirk.”
Central Scotland has been hugely influential to Scottish football over the past 12 months with Falkirk, Stenhousemuir and Alloa Athletic expanding their work in the local community. Stenny continue to maintain the well-regarded Tryst project and Alloa will be hoping to expand the Wasps club in the Second Division. At the heart of these community-focused clubs are the modern 4G pitches, which are becoming increasingly popular amongst SFL teams.
“I think for lower league clubs that is the way ahead, to put in astroturf pitches and make your facilities available to the community, seven days a week,” added White. “That’s the problem for a team like Falkirk because we have a football pitch that is only used once a fortnight and we need to develop the site here to make sure we are the hub of our community.
“We’re still looking into developing our site here at Falkirk. Originally, the site was about 80 acres, but the economic recession hampered the idea of a Sport Village with 3G pitches, tennis centres, gyms and other facilities. The aspiration is still there to do that and we are even talking about building a fourth stand which is double-sided – one side would look on to the pitch, and the other on to a 3G astro park.”
With impressive structures in place – both on and off the pitch – Falkirk have all the tools to return to Scotland’s top tier in May.