When Rangers announced their plans to withdraw from the 2017/18 SPFL Development League to challenge top European academy sides in a year-long series of friendlies it was hailed by most as a step in the right direction for the much-maligned youth set-up at Auchenhowie. As Scottish sides become ever more reliant on homegrown talent, it has become vital for clubs to ensure that they are producing the best young talent possible to supplement their first team.
In recent years, Rangers have given a whole host of youngsters first team debuts as the club climbed back through the leagues following the financial meltdown of 2012, with only Barrie McKay and Lewis Macleod making any meaningful impact on the first team. Since the appointment of Pedro Caixinha in March, a handful of young Gers have made the step-up to first team football as Myles Beerman and David Bates have grabbed their opportunities with both hands and given fans reason to believe things might finally be improving in the Youth department at the club's £12 million training facility. The appointments of Craig Mulholland and Graeme Murty in senior roles in the academy has also given some cause to feel that the club might finally be doing more than paying lip service to youth development with several of the club's young players attracting widespread praise for their performances for club and country.
The 2016/17 Development League campaign brought mixed results; Rangers finished 6th in the table and reached the Scottish FA Youth Cup final before losing out to Celtic but with a team often consisting of numerous 15, 16 and 17 year-olds, it's clear that the emphasis has been put on developing the best players possible over short-term results as there is a 'best vs best' philosophy instilled in the work done at Auchenhowie. With only a handful of players on the upper age limit for the Development League (Jordan Thompson and Ryan Hardie), almost all of the players who featured throughout 2016/17 have at least another year where they are eligible for the under 20s and the opportunity to regularly play against some of the best young players in Europe can only help their development as they take their first steps in the professional game.
Some of the clubs the young Gers will line up against are some of the very best in European football: German giants Bayern Munich; Portuguese sides Benfica and Sporting Lisbon and English clubs like Chelsea, Liverpool and both Manchester sides. Academy head Craig Mulholland also confirmed that games will be played against a number of lower tier SPFL sides such as Stenhousemuir and Annan as they look to not only improve the players' technical ability but also their 'game intelligence'. Earlier this season following a Challenge Cup defeat to Stenhousemuir, a senior member of Rangers' staff told GTBFO he felt the players would "learn more from that 90 minutes against senior pros than they will in the entire league season" and giving the players the chance to test themselves against players who, in many cases have enjoyed good careers higher up the league ladder before falling into part-time football as their careers wind down, should give the youngsters an education in some of the more instinctive parts of the game that only come through experience.
As well as playing friendlies throughout the year, the U20s will continue to play in the Scottish FA Youth Cup and the SPFL's Irn-Bru Cup with the other sides in the Development League and the 30 non-Premiership SPFL sides so there will still be a good amount of competitive football for the Swifts throughout the season and, depending on how they do in their final few games this season, Billy Kirkwood's U17s face the prospect of a UEFA Youth League campaign next season.
Off the pitch, the chance to travel across Europe to face elite teams will give the players an opportunity to push themselves well out of their comfort zones. Playing games at Forthbank in front of 150 fans is one thing but travelling to face Bayern Munich II will be a whole different proposition for the players as they take on foreign teams in new environments in differing climates far removed from the comfort of the Auchenhowie pitches or a sparsely-populated Forthbank.
As with anything new, however, there has been some opposition to the idea of taking Rangers' final youth side before the first team out of the competitive environment of the Development League. One of the most common has been that it makes it difficult for the club to promote a 'winning mentality' amongst the players if they aren't playing in a competitive league however that comes across as nothing more than ex-pros stuck in the 'it worked fine for us so why change it' mentality while completely ignoring the, literally, thousands of young hopefuls who were part of successful youth sides who went on to achieve nothing in the senior game or the teams who had almost unchallenged success at youth level but failed to produce a single player who went on to lift a senior trophy.
Another point that was raised in opposition was, almost comically, the number of teams in major European nations who had withdrawn their development team from a youth league to play a season of friendlies. Holland, Spain, Portugal, France, and Germany all allow clubs to have second teams in the senior league pyramid. Clubs like Ajax, Benfica, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and PSG all have their young players out playing against adults on a weekly basis in competitions where finishing bottom of the table can have severe consequences for clubs and, in some cases, players are playing for their livelihoods. It's not a coincidence that all of those countries have far better records in youth development and senior football than Scottish club and national teams.
Oh aye, and there's the mental Sevcoists who somehow thing travelling across Europe is a 'cost-cutting exercise'. Make sense of that if you will. We stopped trying a long time ago.
Ultimately, it may backfire as Rangers could very possibly be on the end of some heavy defeats but it's refreshing to see something different being tried before the Scottish FA implement their 'Project Brave' plan ahead of the 2018/19 season.
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