Ever since it was opened in 2001, Auchenhowie (or Murray Park) has been viewed as Rangers’ own production line of young Scottish talent. With a handful of exceptions there haven’t been too many unqualified success stories, although there are plenty of ex-Auchenhowie hopefuls around the leagues in both Scotland & England, but recent suggestions that there is no talent coming through at the £14million facility are well wide of the mark.
The most recent came in Scott Mullen’s Evening Times column on Saturday where he claimed there wasn’t a "stream of young kids coming through who could make the grade" in the Academy. This was backed up by Friday’s 4-0 defeat to Celtic in the Development League and the fact that Graeme Murty’s side trail leaders Ross County by 20 points.
On the face of it, it does look like a development system which "isn’t producing" the talent it should but anyone who has taken the time to watch the U20s this season (or any of Scotland’s youth sides will have seen for themselves the young talent coming through in MIlngavie. The U20s side haven’t set the world alight with results in the league this season but Friday’s loss was their first in eight games, and they have a Scottish FA Youth Cup final date with Celtic later this season, while the U17 side are fighting to win the league and secure a place in the UEFA Youth League next season.
In every position on the pitch, there are some really talented young players, some of whom undoubtedly have the potential to go one and become regulars at Ibrox and the current group of U20s & U17s (there’s lots of crossover between both squads) have some of the most promising young footballers in Scotland. Top of the list is the obvious choice; Billy Gilmour. There’s not much that hasn’t been said about the young midfielder and just how far he can go in the game. Gilmour has all the ability in the world and, assuming he works hard to fulfil his potential, he could easily go on to be one of the best Scottish players of his generation.
Defensively, Myles Beerman and David Bates have both impressed after an enforced promotion to Pedro Caixinha’s starting XI and although both have only joined the club in the last 12 months, neither moved to Ibrox as a first team player and have been regular features in the U20 side that lie seventh in the Development League. Jordan Houston and Aidan Wilson have both made it as a far as the substitutes bench for the first team and Wilson in particular has been a key player in Murty’s side; turning in a series of assured performances at the heart of defence against far more experienced attackers. Ross & Robby McCrorie are also two who are sure to have good careers at Ibrox and have been regulars in the U20s as they make the first steps in their professional careers. Defender Ross has also recently been winning plaudits during a loan stint at Championship strugglers Dumbarton as the Sons try to secure their second tier status. Beerman, Wilson, Houston, Lewis Mayo and both McCrories have all received international call-ups this season with Jordan Houston and Lewis Mayo part of the Scotland U17 squad who qualified for the European Championship.
Further forward, Rangers have a wealth of midfield talent like the aforementioned Gilmour. Max Ashmore, Jamie Barjonas and Jack Thomson are three incredibly talented youngsters (Barjonas drew attention after a phenomenal strike against Falkirk in the Youth Cup) with bright futures ahead of them. Ashmore has really stepped up in recent weeks for the second string as Pedro Caixinha has called a number of youngsters (including Ashmore) in to his day-to-day plans. Thomson has had some injury issues but is another who can go as far as he wants in the game. The trio had some appearances together earlier in the season, before the emergence of Gilmour, and should give Caixinha something to think about in both the short and long term.
goal from the youth cup last night pic.twitter.com/LHuDp9IfbW— Barjo (@jbarjonas_) January 23, 2017
The U20s frontline has seen countless personnel changes throughout the season as Martyn Waghorn, Joe Dodoo, Harry Forrester and Michael O’Halloran have all featured at some point, but two of the brightest prospects at the club have been regular starters somewhere in the front three. Liam Burt already has a handful of first-team appearances under his belt while 17-year-old striker Zak Rudden has been a stand-out throughout the season for both club and country. Both players have scored vital goals at various points this season and have caused problems on a near weekly basis with their constant attacking threat. After a prolonged pursuit, Congolese winger Serge Atakayi moved to the club last year and, after a few months finding his feet in his new surroundings, the 17-year-old has burst onto the scene with a rich vein of goalscoring form in recent weeks.
There are also a number of players who tend to fly under the radar and not receive the same praise as some of their colleagues do. Ross Lyon, Jordan Gibson & Andrew Dallas have been in or around the U20 side on a regular basis and have looked just as capable of performing to the same high standard as their team-mates; Ross Lyon has been used all across the pitch and has yet to look uncomfortable in any of them. Usually used as a winger, Lyon started the season at right-back before being utilised on either wing then returning to defence in the last few weeks. Dapo Mebude recently made his debut for the U20s and is yet another tipped for a bright future in professional football.
Since the appointment of Craig Mulholland as Head of Academy there has also been a big change in culture at Auchenhowie. No longer are the squads based purely on age but a shift to a "best vs best" philosophy has allowed U15s & U17s often make up the majority of Murty’s side with many of them also regularly involved with the U17 side in their quest for European football. Trips to places like Porto to play a higher standard of team have also been introduced as Rangers’ hierarchy looks to finally maximise the club’s Youth Development Programme. There are also an ever-increasing number of scouts spotted at Forthbank (home of the U20s) amongst the handful of fans and parents.
Recruiting Graeme Murty last August also shows the club’s desire to make the most of it’s youth system and help the club return to it’s place at the top of Scottish Football. Highly rated for his work down south with Southampton and Norwich, the former Scotland international has immediately put his mark on the players at Auchenhowie and has shown a real understanding of what is required to nurture the potential of the players at his disposal. A short stint in caretaker charge of the first team shows the high regard he is held in at Ibrox and, although results under him weren’t ideal, the 1-1 draw with Celtic showed a massive turnaround in the players who had disappointed so regularly under Mark Warburton.
The introduction of ‘Colt’ teams to this season’s IRN-BRU Cup has also played a part in developing better players all across Scotland. After Rangers U20s lost to an experienced Stenhousemuir side, a senior Academy figure said the players would "learn more from that 90 minutes than a season of Development League games". Letting players play regularly in a competitive environment aids their growth far more than playing youth games. The oldest Academy players have all been out on loan this season as they look to earn a place in the manager’s thoughts for 2017/18. Jordan Thompson and Ryan Hardie are both seeing out the remainder of the season in the SPFL Championship with Raith Rovers while goalkeeper Liam Kelly has won his second successive promotion on loan at Livingston in League One; Kelly won League Two last season with East Fife. All three are youth internationals for their respective countries.
In the 16 years since it opened to much fanfare, Auchenhowie hasn’t been the conveyor belt of talent it was hoped it would be and on paper 7th place in the Development League doesn’t look great but I defy anyone to take the time and actually watch the teams coming through the Academy and not simply look at the league table and say they are not producing good players.