When a nation is as obsessed with football as Scotland, there is always a searchlight pointed towards the horizon in search of tomorrow’s stars. Whether cribbed from Football Manager or tipped off by youth level coaches, the names of potential superstars are known across the country before the players themselves are out of high school. Indeed, when a nation as obsessed with football as Scotland fails to qualify for a single tournament in 20 years (and counting), the new names are poured over with almost religious fervour.
Knowledgeable fans become like Buddhist monks in search of the Dalai Lama’s new incarnation, hoping to find some spark of divinity in the face of a random child. With things going so badly for so long, they pray that one of these fresh-faced, scraggly kids will stand apart as their footballing Messiah, turning the tides and changing the fate of their nation. Step forward: John Fleck, Islam Feruz, Ryan Gauld and Jack Harper.
Like the broken, angry men gathered around their fallen comrade in David Fincher’s Fight Club, you can hear fans around the nation intoning their names. The ones that were supposed to fulfil the prophecy. The ones that didn’t make it.
Over the summer, the Toulon tournament saw Scotland’s under-20 side go on a blistering run to the semi-finals, succumbing to England but coming away with a handful of individual honours, a host of good performances, and a list of new names to be hopeful about. Even as the wave of enthusiasm about the new set builds, there is something perceptibly nervous about the atmosphere surrounding them. They are child prodigies with a nation of nervous parents – desperate to see them succeed but terrified of seeing them fail.
That knife-edge balance is nowhere better personified right now than in that side’s captain, Oliver Burke. A pure force of nature unlike anything Scotland has seen before, Burke is blessed with the all-out athleticism of the modern game’s supermen. Tall and wide-shouldered, he tears across the park with the kind of pace and power of a 16-wheeler heading downhill. He moves like a rugby player who still can’t believe his luck at discovering this bizarre game where you can just barge past people and no-one even tries to jump on you.
Even the Scottish game’s most seasoned cynics thought that this might be it. This might be Scotland’s Gareth Bale – the one-man army who can storm the opposition all by himself, leading his country to the promised land of a major tournament once more.
After bursting on to the scene as a teenager, he became the most expensive Scotsman of all time with a £13m move to RB Leipzig. This was to be the finishing school that would put the final touches on his raw talent, a little European elegance to go on top of his innate ability. Just like Jadon Sancho, only bigger, faster and stronger.
That same year, he made his debut for the national side at only 18. At the time, it was an incredible feat that highlighted how he was lighting up the future of Scottish football. In retrospect, it casts a shadow on his very participation in the Toulon tournament the summer that followed.
Having graduated from the youth ranks already, he has been forced to return. A similar thing happened at club level as he broke his own transfer record with a £15m move back to British shores following a tricky spell in Germany. Things have hardly improved for him at West Brom, and he is tipped to move again in January.
His name hasn’t disappeared from the conversation altogether, and he once again looked like a prospect of the highest order while wearing the captain’s armband in France, scoring the goal which saw his side defeat the host nation for the first time in their history, then producing one of the competition’s brightest moment’s with a blistering solo goal against South Korea. But the chatter around him has begun to quiet a little as his trajectory has faltered from its meteoric beginning. The prophecies have been reigned in. Talk of how high he will rise has begun to ebb, replaced by hopeful, nervous pleas that he doesn’t fall away altogether.
Though officially there to lead his younger compatriots, Burke was by no means the star of the show. When the Team of the Tournament was named after the competition closed, Gilmour and Johnston were the Scottish surnames gracing the chosen side. At the age of 21, Burke already finds himself being asked to stand aside to let the new kids through. Being a prodigy can be as brutal a career path as a Hollywood child star or a teen pop sensation. There is always someone younger standing eagerly on the edge of your spotlight.
The ineffable cosmic force of the Old Firm retains its kingmaking role in Scottish football, with one Toulon award-winner drawn from each side of the Green-Blue divide. Eighteen-year-old Mikey Johnston took home bronze in the Player of the Tournament category, capping his contribution to the team with a dizzying individual goal against England. In the season that has followed, the spindly winger has pushed into Celtic’s first team on numerous occasions and even managed to grab his first taste of European football.
Arising from the other half of the city, Billy Gilmour traded Rangers’ blue shirts for Chelsea’s last year and has been showcasing his talents in the English youth league ever since. Only 16 at the time, Gilmour laid claim to Toulon’s Revelation Award and is generally thought to be the most technically gifted Scottish player in some time.
Once more, the excitement at the potential of these electrifying creative players -something Scottish football has been direly in need of for some time – is met by anxiety of the road that remains ahead. Gilmour’s decision to go south while still a teenager was met with no shortage of worried frowns, and not just by Rangers fans lamenting the loss of the next Ibrox star-in-waiting. His story felt all too familiar to those who had traced Islam Feruz’s journey from Parkhead prodigy to Chelsea extra.
Before Burke, Feruz was the player most widely tipped to become Scotland’s saviour after becoming the youngest player to ever be capped by the under-21 side at only 16 years old. Since moving to Chelsea, he has attracted more attention for misjudged social media posts, bad driving and failed loan spells than anything he has done on the pitch. At 23, he has yet to receive a full cap for the national team, and the odds of him ever attaining one have been getting steadily longer with each new misadventure.
At this point, teams the size of Chelsea can afford to recruit every potential star from around the globe in the knowledge that only the smallest handful will be developed into first-team players. The wave of talented youngsters that are sucked up into their system only to be discarded a few years later is regarded as incidental, collateral damage they will shed few tears over. Even for a talent as highly regarded as Gilmour’s, entry into such a setup comes at the risk of getting lost in the crowd.
Of course, staying put is no guarantee of success either. Both Old Firm sides can tell tales of the youngsters who exploded on to the scene only to fizzle out within a few years. Tony Watt scored two goals in the first five minutes of his Celtic career and made history against Barcelona a few months later. He now spearheads the attack of a perennially overachieving St Johnstone, looking unlikely to ever rise as high as he did in his early days again. It is odd to think of a player as past his peak at only 24 but so goes the story for plenty of the game’s hottest prospects. Many fall much further than Watt has.
For now, Gilmour and Johnston are the next big things. There is always a next big thing. But what distinguishes this particular generation from those that came before is the climate in which they have been brought up. A climate in which Scotland has not reached a major tournament since 1998. For most of those at Toulon, that was before they were born. Even for the older heads there like Burke and Scotland’s other, more established up-and-comers like Kieran Tierney, Scott McKenna and Scott McTominay, it’s a date too far in the past for them to have any real recollection of it. As a result, the new batch of Scottish hopefuls have risen through the ranks with no-one ahead of them to set an example.
By 1998, Scotland had qualified for every World Cup bar one since the 1970s, in a period which saw some of the greatest Scottish talents ever to grace the game take to the field. Names like Danny McGrain, Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen, Graeme Souness, Steve Archibald, Archie Gemmill and Dennis Law are still uttered with utter reverence across the country, and in the football world beyond. It seemed that this period has secured the country’s footballing identity as one of the mainstays of the world scene, a serious force on the brink international excellence. And then things changed.
This change became the boundary line between generations of Scottish football fans. Like How I Met Your Mother’s “Ewok Line”, the tone in which they talk about the national team has predicted the age of a Scottish person pretty accurately. In the sitcom, the “Ewok Line” is based on the idea that a person can be aged at a glance by whether or not they find the Ewoks from Star Wars cute or annoying – cute means they were still kids when the films came out, annoying that they were already too old to be charmed by the bumbling teddy bear tribe.
Listen in on any discussion of the national team in any bar around Scotland and most voices can be placed on one side of the generational gap. The older crowd lived through Scotland’s glory days and became accustomed to that picture of them as constant contenders. The younger ones have never known anything other than a side that never quite manages to meet its own ever-sinking expectations.
As these young players push on into the senior team and embark on their quest to turn things around, they will be trying to achieve something they have never seen. While this is no doubt hugely frightening, it may also be for the best. Following in the footsteps of your ancestors creates a burden to do what they did, even to exceed it. It seldom takes into account the way in which circumstances may have changed since then, the fact that the world they conquered is no longer the one you live in.
As Scotland have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory time and again, it’s easy to feel that this pressure has played a part. Even as the quality of the players available has ebbed and flowed over the last two decades, what has remained consistent is their capacity to fall apart. Hampden’s roar struggles to disturb the nervous tension that now inhabits the stadium, a localised pressure system that follows the team wherever they go, ignited by the slightest misstep into an explosion that incinerates every atom of self-confidence they brought out on to the park with them.
It is possible that passing the torch on to a generation of players who have grown up without this expectation could be just the kind of baptism Scottish football needs if it is to be reborn.
In his recent post-punk novel This Is Memorial Device, David Keenan talked about small towns like Airdrie acting as places so removed from anywhere that, growing up there, you felt like anything could happen. In London, or even Glasgow, you could feel the eyes of the world on the back of your head, ready to judge your every movement. In Airdrie, no-one was watching; no-one cared. Some people might see this as a reason to give up, a prison a that confined you to obscurity. The novel’s main characters embrace it as the ultimate liberation, freeing them to be whoever they want without inhibition.
This might be exactly the new attitude Scottish football needs to step out of the shadow of its past legends; to forget them altogether; to embrace its new identity as a team no-one expects anything of or is paying attention to.
John Fleck, Islam Feruz, Ryan Gauld and Jack Harper – it’s worth looking at that list again. Feruz’s troubles have been noted but he remains a Chelsea player able to entice loan moves across the continent.
Ryan Gauld’s much-vaunted move to Portugal has not seen him make good on the “Wee Messi” moniker just yet but he has taken a loan move to the country’s second tier, committed to working his way up.
John Fleck didn’t erupt onto the scene as Scotland’s Wayne Rooney in the way many predicted, and he too stepped down through the divisions to join up with Sheffield United in England’s League One. Last season he was named in the division’s Team of the Year, leading his side to the top of the table and picking up a hundred points on the way.
Witnessing a teenage Jack Harper cut about the Bernabéu was a thrill to any Scot watching, the iconic white shirt finally filled by one of their countrymen. He left there for an injury-strewn spell at Brighton, before returning to Spain and to the city of his birth, Málaga. Many were disappointed to see him reduced to playing reserve football but, after a staring turn at that level last season, this campaign has seen him make his way into the senior side. In the games that have followed, Marca have described him as “the revelation of Spain’s second tier”.
It is tempting to let our expectations soar at the first sign of talent. We heap “wonderkid” labels on to players when they’ve only begun to develop, expecting the world from them from the first moment. Then, at the first indication they may not meet these expectations, we discard them and move on to the next prospect waiting in the ranks. Every footballing nation has this kind of machinery in place, and it has a ruthless capacity to swallow young players whole. But the fervour with which Scotland approach football, combined with the increasing desperation at their fallen status, may have sent it into overdrive.
The mythos of the natural-born genius is an alluring tale because it promises an almost divine intervention – a player arising from out of nowhere to change everything. Such players do appear but very rarely. On the other hand, football is filled with great players who are not the stars of their youth academy.
While Jack Harper was at Real Madrid, Raúl was putting the finishing touches to his legacy there, whilst always admitting that he had never been the most naturally talented of players. The man who may one day fill his boots, Harry Kane, was barely warming the bench at Tottenham only a few years ago. Even Scotland’s current captain and biggest star, Andy Robertson, was rejected by the Celtic youth setup as a teen and worked his way up through England’s lower leagues to his current status as a key player at Liverpool.
If you step away from the idea of a saviour wandering in out of the blue to change your fate, you can more easily embrace the idea of working with what you have. In Scotland’s case, it seems like the fixation with the type of players we used to produce might have blinded them to the quality they have today. You can’t build a new team with one eye on the old one. You need a blank slate.
The fate of Scottish football is gradually shifting into the hands of a generation raised on failure. They have been charged with changing things, with turning around 20 years of disappointment. It is a tall order that will require them to be bold, to strike out into territory that remains, for them, terra incognita. While that is a daunting prospect, it also offers them the chance to find their own route forward rather than toiling on the path their predecessors took.
The bad news is that the national team finds itself now in the middle of nowhere. The good news is that, from there, you can go anywhere.
By Ross McIndoe @OneBigWiggle