On the 25th of May, 1967, in Lisbon’s Estadio Nacional, an unlikely team from Scotland shocked Europe by dismantling an Inter Milan side that many considered to be the best on the continent, in the process becoming the first team outside Latin Europe to win the greatest prize in club football; the European Cup. Celtic’s victory was heralded by manager of the opposition, Helenio Herrera, as a ‘victory for sport,’ while the side from Glasgow was lauded the world over for their display of ‘total football.’ What made the victory all the more inconceivable was the fact that every player in a Celtic jersey that day was born within a 30 mile radius of Celtic Park, while 9 players were brought up through the ranks of the club’s youth academy. Unsurprisingly, football has never seen the likes of the Lisbon Lions again.
No matter your allegiance, the feat achieved by the men in green and white that day must be regarded as one of the greatest moments in sporting history.
For Celtic fans, the years that followed such a magnificent achievement were rich with success. Celtic went on to reach another European Cup final in 1970, finishing runner’s up to Feyenoord, and won a Scottish League record 9 titles in a row. Indeed, local talent from the green half of the city continued to flood like an endless stream on to the park as the Lisbon Lions’ time wore on, with the famed Quality Street Gang, consisting of the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Danny McGrain, George Connelly and Davie Hay, mesmerising the Parkhead faithful like the Lions had done before. When their time was coming to an end in the late 70s and 80s, the Celtic shirt was continually adorned by products of the club’s youth academy and fans of the club, with club greats such as Roy Aitken, Packie Bonner, Tommy Burns and Paul McStay contributing to historical moments in the club’s long history.
Nonetheless, the turn of the millennium signalled a diminishing influence of Celtic’s academy on the first team. The club began to place more of a focus on signing high profile players from England and abroad, but the first team was still dotted with promising academy graduates breaking through into the first team, such as Aidan McGeady, Shaun Maloney, John Kennedy and Liam Miller. Needless to say, some were more successful than others.
However, the past 10 years have signalled a steeper decline in the number of successful academy graduates than anyone could have imagined. Of course, football has changed drastically since the glory days of Johnstone, McNeill and Stein. It is now a multi billion pound, cash driven industry. But still, as teams like Ajax persist in their faith of their youth set up, why can’t we do the same?
A Comparison: Ajax
Blind, Eriksen and Vertonghen: Products of the Ajax Academy now starring in England
Before I drop a bombshell and reveal the embarrassing statistics behind our academy production over the last decade, it’s important to look towards other clubs of a similar stature to ours, what they’re doing right and how we can hope to emulate them. Rather than look at a club such as Barcelona, one of the financial powerhouses of world football, I thought it’d be best to look at a club with a similar reputation, financial status and stature as ours ; Ajax.
Of course, a brief look at the history of Ajax shows the emphasis the club has placed on youth development and, like Celtic, they have reaped the rewards, boasting 4 European Cup winning teams consisting largely of home grown players. In recent years, like Celtic, they have been enormously impacted by the cash cow that is the English Premier League, and have realised that, to survive, they must develop players and cash them in once they get to a certain age. Yet rather than sign players that have come through development systems at other clubs, they bring in them in at a young age and enroll them into their famed youth academy.
Unsurprisingly, this sustained emphasis on youth development has paid dividends. In the past 10 years, an astonishing total of 27 Ajax youth graduates have played over 50 (I thought this was a reasonable number of games, as it can be achieved in under 2 seasons) games for the club. That list includes Van Rhijn, Veltman, Bazoer, Fischer, Klaasen, El Ghazi, Riedewald, Serero, Moisander, Boileson, Kishna, Andersen, Vermeer, De Jong, Blind, Alderweireld, Eriksen, Vertonghen, Van Der Wiel, Anita, Enoh, Ebecilio, Lindgren, Emmanuelson, Maduro, de Mul and, hold the laughter, Derk Boerrigter.
Most of you will recognise the majority of the names on that list. All players have won league titles with Ajax and participated in the Champions League, and many were sold on for 10’s of millions of pounds and now line the teams of top clubs in England, Italy and France. Yet the question remains, how do Ajax consistently produce such great players?
Former Ajax star Alderweireld, now leading the Spurs chase for the Premier League Title
In terms of recruitment, Ajax employs 50 full time scouts in the Netherlands alone. This enables them to uncover the nation’s future stars wherever they may be and at whatever age. Indeed, there rarely appears a youth prospect at another club in the Netherlands that Ajax aren’t aware of or aren’t keeping tabs on. Further, they employ a further 5 scouts across the globe, giving them further reach to recruit the best youth players. Many of these players end up at foreign Ajax academies, as they have full time youth set ups in Cape Town, Greece and Ajax.
In terms of philosophy and transfer policy, the club do not buy first team players (unless there are no suitable/adequate players in the youth ranks) and promote three new graduates every season. The most talented of youths are virtually guaranteed first team status at ages 16 and 17, if they show enough potential. Ultimately, the basic premise of the Ajax academy is that there is the complete transition of youth prospect into star player playing under the ‘total football’ philosophy, which is taught by 25 full time youth coaches.
You’d probably think the running cost of this set up costs an arm and a leg. As a matter of fact, it only cost Ajax 6 million euros per season (£4.7m).
Now we have a comparison, it’s important to establish the problem with Celtic, and how it can be solved.
Celtic’s Youth Stats
As most of you will agree, the product of our own club’s youth academy over the past decade has been poor, with the promising Kieran Tierney perhaps the only saving grace. Nonetheless, the stats surprisingly read well in terms of our transition of youth players from the academy to the first team over the past 10 years. A total of 28 Celtic youth graduates have made appearances for the first team since the 2005/06 season. Below is a list of every player who has made the transition, the amount of appearances they have made and how their time at the club ended.
Statistics are slightly out (2 months), but still no more players over 50 apps
28 youth players to break into the first team over the course of 10 seasons is a decent number when compared to the likes Barcelona, who have brought 33 players through in the same amount of time.
However, you will notice four players are highlighted in green; Stephen McManus, Darren O’Dea, James Forrest and Callum McGregor. They are the only four Celtic youth team graduates over the past 10 years to make more than 50 appearances for the club. Yeah, you read it right, and I will emphasise it again. Compared to Ajax’s massive 27, only FOUR Celtic youth team graduates have made over 50 appearances for the club in 10 years.
Even from the four that have passed the 50 mark, their quality hasn’t been great. Stephen McManus is probably the pick of the bunch; former club captain, played in the side who achieved to back to back appearances in the Last 16 of the Champions League, winning 3 league titles and two Scottish Cups. Darren O’Dea played in the same successful Champions League sides, but overall struggled to make an impact during his time at the club, and is perhaps best remembered for his goal in the 2009 League Cup final against the old Rangers. Then there’s James Forrest, the man who will be perpetually known for having ‘bags of potential.’ Averaging under 30 games a season, largely down to injuries, his impact at the club has been limited to few special moments, with his goal against Karagandy to propel us into the Champions League Group Stages and another goal in last season’s League Cup Final rare highlights. Calum McGregor completes the list, with his Celtic career still in its adolescence. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but there certainly is potential there. Of course, Tierney will probably pass that number at some point next season providing he’s not sold, and should hopefully become a great for the club.
Ex Celtic Captain, Stephen McManus
KT aside, that output, to understate grossly, is nowhere near good enough for a club of our size and, more importantly, limited resources. So what are we doing wrong?
The Celtic Problem
The simple and obvious answer is recruitment.
Where do we start? We all know the club’s transfer/recruitment policy; buy low sell high. Effectively, the club believe that to survive in modern football and not go the way of our former rivals, we must buy players in their early twenties from lesser well established clubs in Europe on the cheap, develop them for a few years, then sell on at a profit. Of course, we’ve had our success stories; Hooper, Forster, Wanyama, Van Dijk et al. There’s no doubting the policy works, if you get it right.
However, for every success story there have been countless miserable signings. Naming them all in the past 10 years is a difficult task, but I’ll try it anyway. Fortune (£4mil), Fox (£1.5mil), Hooiveld (£2mil), Rasmussen (£1.5mil), Murphy (£1.5mil), Juarez (£4mil), Bangura (£2.2mil), Boerrigter (£3mil), Pukki (£3mil), Amido (£1.5mil), Scepovic (£2.3mil), Boyata (£1.5mil) and Ciftci (£1.5mil). That’s a total of £29.5 million wasted on, quite frankly, garbage players. From the players that were sold on, not one bit of profit was made and in most cases we struggle to recuperate a large chunk of the fee. There is probably more that I have missed. In short, our transfer/recruitment policy is not working.
Pukki, Boerrigter and Amido. Oh dear!
Moreover, it’s not working because it is the wrong policy. I’m not going to suggest that we should sign first team regulars from Premier League/ Spanish League sides for enormous fees and pay them extravagant wages. We can’t afford it and anyone who believes we can is living in fantasy land.
What we should be doing is following the Ajax strategy; bring players in who are in their early teen years and develop them in our own youth academy. I have never understood why we’d let other teams develop players until their early twenties for them to sell on to us for a couple of million. The middle man needs to be eliminated. That is one of the main reasons our academy has failed to produce quality players in recent years.
The fact of the matter is, Celtic should be signing players from all over the UK in their teenage years (13-18) for next to nothing and developing them ourselves. Some might point to Deila’s attempts to bring in young Scottish players in his tenure, such as Armstrong, Mackay Steven, Christie and Allan. That bunch cost us nearly £3million. These players should have been spotted before their 18th birthday and brought in for buttons. Chances are they’d be a hell of a lot better players than they are now.
But why weren’t they brought in?
Celtic obviously don’t feel it’s a priority. Why do I say that? We currently only have 6 full time scouts in Scotland. For a club of our size to have only 6 scouts in Scotland is an absolute aberration. Ajax have bloody 50 in the Netherlands! That’s the reason why our academy is failing; we care more about buying foreign talent for a few million a pop than bringing in Scottish youngsters from smaller clubs at home and developing them ourselves.
Players like Ryan Gauld, recently sold by Dundee Utd to Sporting Lisbon and regarded as the brightest prospect in Scottish football, should not only be coming on to our radar when major European clubs become interested in them. He should have been snapped up by ourselves before he made the first team at Dundee Utd, developed further and transformed into a star first team player. If we had an extensive scouting network, like we should already have, Gauld and many other promising players over the years that we missed out on, like Jordan Rhodes, Steven Fletcher et al would have adorned the Hoops and undoubtedly brought success to the club.
What’s more, a greater scouting network is affordable considering the money we’ve spent on below average players. The whole Ajax youth program costs £4.7million a year. That £29.5million I mentioned earlier, which has been spent on the likes of Boerrigter and the rest, would pay for a similar set up at Parkhead for SIX years. What would you rather have?
Kieran Tierney, Celtic’s most promising player
The advantages of an extensive scouting network are pretty clear. With an upgraded scouting network, our chances of picking up gems from across the UK at a young age would increase drastically. These players would ultimately be able to develop at Lennoxtown, of course to varying degrees, and hopefully make the transition into Champions League players. On top of that, less money would be wasted on duds who are looking to use the club as a stepping stone, as we should have developed our own home grown players who have played with each other for years in the youth set up and have no need to go further a field for players. The fact of the matter is, players like Kieran Tierney shouldn’t come once along once every 5 or 10 years at Celtic, there should be 1 or 2 every season.
We certainly have the facilities in place. Lennoxtown is a state of the art complex that would be the envy of many across Europe. On top of that, the St Ninian’s partnership enables players of secondary school age to benefit from 9 coaching sessions per week – more than any other club in Europe. The self professed goal of the Celtic Academy is, after all, ‘to develop first team regulars who are capable of performing in the Champions’ League for Celtic.’ In spite of what anyone says, we know it can produce players of such quality; McManus was once upon a time, as was O’Dea, then there was McGeady and it looks as if Tierney will be capable at some point.
Indeed, it’s not that the club cannot produce Champions League quality players. The youth set up at Celtic Park is failing because it is set up to fail. The priorities of the board are to seek out cheap players at 22 or 23 who can make an instant impact, without really knowing if they can do it but they are still willing to take a gamble. Until those in the hierarchy of Celtic Park realise we should be investing in our youth recruitment and acquiring the best teens across the UK, the once fabled Celtic development system will continue to fail. Without a change of priority, it could be a long time before we see a Celtic side inspired by a core of local lads. For that matter, although he’s only 18, it could be a long time before we see another Kieran Tierney.