IN a manner of speaking, Mark Wotte must take a fair portion of the blame for Scotland’s defeat by Belgium on Tuesday night.
If it wasn’t for the sterling work he and his coaching compatriots were undertaking at the KNVB 10 years ago, their Belgian counterparts wouldn’t have used their neighbours as a blueprint when they overhauled their own youth network.
The fruits of that labour were clear to see in Brussels in midweek as that nation’s new golden generation mauled the best our country currently has to offer, but thankfully Wotte feels that the work he has commenced in the last 16 or so months can replicate such results closer to home. The project, however, has an uncertain completion date that may be as much as eight years away. And success or failure is predicated upon such variables as weaning the nation away from its seeming dependence on junk food and tonic wine.
“Back in 2000-02, I was in a similar job in Holland to the one I am in just now,” said Wotte. “I did the under-19s and 21s and with the two nations [Holland and Belgium] being so close we played a lot of games. At first they played 4-4-2, without any philosophy, and only cared about winning. We played them at under-19s with our generation – [Robin] Van Persie, [Arjen] Robben, [Nigel] De Jong and [Maarten] Stekelenburg – and Marc Van Geersom, the Belgian guy who had just been appointed, said ‘we’re going to change everything and not going to play just to win any more’ and they adapted the 4-3-3 system – the Dutch style of play – and visited France a lot to copy the training programmes.
“That was exactly 10 years ago. When you see where they are now and the quality of players they have – [Eden] Hazard and [Kevin] Mirallas were on the bench on Tuesday night – they have a depth of squad as well. They realised they had to change their culture and philosophy in terms of how to deal with youth football. That’s exactly what we tried to do when I came in a year ago. Of course, the current generation of Scottish players have been brought up in another culture, and results don’t come overnight; you can’t expect to become a world-class side tomorrow. But Belgium are now one of the strongest sides in Europe and in August they beat Holland 4-2.”
Judging by the inaugural football festival of the SFA’s seven performance schools there are some promising signs, but Scotland also presents some challenging obstacles to be overcome. More than 100 boys and girls have been selected according to their talent and given individual player programmes to adhere to, but those troublesome teenage years have wreaked havoc on many a Scottish talent.
“There are many reasons for the decline of Scottish football,” said Wotte. “There are lifestyle issues – we need better physical education and diet. The kids should not be growing up with crisps, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. And when they’re 16 they go on the Buckfast and have a great night. I am not blind, I live close to Glasgow so I see this.”
A hysteria tends to set in whenever the full national team are underperforming, but Wotte feels the SFA are now doing plenty of things correctly. He encounters kids at the lower age groups these days who compare favourably with some of the illustrious talents he has met in the past, and uses the example of Ricky Sbragia’s under-19 team as proof that these youngsters are flourishing with the benefit of first-team football. The government has bought into his project but further investment is required to enhance our network of facilities.
“When Van Persie, Sneijder and Robben were 12 or 13 they weren’t better than the Scottish kids we have at that age,” Wotte said. “Not at all. But it’s about how you develop them into world-class players. We’ve always done well in Scotland up to the age of 16, then players fall off a cliff.
“Maybe in the past it was difficult to get into their club’s first team. But there is a big difference now. A year ago, only Fraser Fyvie from our Under-19 side had played first-team football. Now we have Matty Kennedy, Marcus Fraser, Ryan Fraser, John Herron, Ryan Gauld and Thomas Reilly, who are all involved at first-team level. Islam Feruz would play in any first-team in the SPL right now. At Rangers, Lewis MacLeod and Barrie McKay are playing in SFL3 but, for sure, MacLeod would be playing in the SPL, that’s a no-brainer. So there are more and more coming through.
“Whether that’s down to the philosophy of the clubs or a lack of money is another discussion,” added Wotte, who has invited his countryman Co Adriaanse to address the academy coaches next month. “But we will get better every year with the things we are doing. The quality of the academies will get better, because we’re funding £2m a year into clubs’ academies. We’re running an under-20 league and the performance schools. We’ve doubled the amount of activity of our youth teams. I believe in best v best and our 12-year-olds are now training eight times a week. That has to improve them.
“It’s not all bad, it is just that the timing of this conversation takes place after losing against Belgium. And I think 100 times against Belgium you win one or two times and even then everything has to go well for us. But what we were doing wasn’t good enough. We’ve started the process. I’m 16 months in the job and everyone at the SFA is behind the project. I hope everyone in Scotland is behind it as well.”
Source: The Herald Scotland