Rangers Academy: From facing Partick to PSV
Written by Simon Austin — August 26, 2017
PSV EINDHOVEN, Manchester City, Everton, Benfica.
Rangers' Under-20 side have some tasty fixtures to look forward to - and that's just in the first half of the season.
"Playing these top teams, we might get the odd bloody nose," admits Academy boss Craig Mulholland.
"But if we want to do justice to these young players, we need to give them sufficient challenge to develop."
Challenge: it's a word Mulholland uses over and over again during the course of our telephone conversation.
Challenging players has been at the heart of his philosophy ever since he took the job in December 2014. That's why Rangers had an average age of just 18 in the Under-20 league last season.
It's why they took on men's teams during a recent tour of Northern Ireland. And it's why they made the controversial decision to drop out of the SPFL Development League this season so they could play some of the biggest teams in Europe instead.
Rangers' recent record of producing homegrown players hasn't actually been that bad.
Since opening the Murray Park Football Centre in 2001, 49 Academy players have graduated to the first team, and six - Charlie Adam, Allan McGregor, Ross McCormack, Alan Hutton, Chris Burke and Danny Wilson - have gone on to represent Scotland.
But the club wants better. Much better.
"We recognise we can improve significantly," Mulholland says. "We realise that the days of signing lots of expensive players have gone, so we want a sustainable model based on the development of our own talent.
"If we want to develop a better standard of player then we need to do something different."
That's why the club took the decision to take a one-year sabbatical from the Development League. Entry is mandatory for the SPL teams, but both the league and SFA gave their blessing to the temporary exit.
Mulholland remembers a conversation he had with his Southampton counterpart Matt Hale last season that crystalised his thinking.
The two Under-20 sides had just played a friendly at Staplewood and Mulholland asked, 'Who are your next couple of games against, Matt?'
'Oh, Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund. How about you?'
"Now, I don't want to be disrespectful to the teams in question," Mulholland goes on, "so I won't name them, but suffice to say they weren't quite at that same level."
Mulholland says the transition from Academy to first team is too difficult for Rangers players, because the Development League isn't challenging enough.
He backs this up by pointing out that Scotland's Under-17s - made up mainly of players from Rangers and Celtic - have qualified for the last four European Under-17 Championships and reached the semi-finals in 2014, whereas the Under-21s haven't qualified for their tournament since 1996.
Mulholland worked out that on average 37% of the Rangers and Celtic players in the Under-17s had dropped out by the time they reached the Under-21s.
"In other countries, the Under-21s are getting experience with their first teams, whereas the Celtic and Rangers players aren't," he says.
"That means they are relying on a Development League that isn't sufficiently challenging. As a result, our Under-21s are largely made up players from other teams. Now, if we accept that Rangers and Celtic have some of the best talent at Under-17 level, it shouldn't be the case that 37% have dropped out by the Under-21s.
"We need to address that drop off and find new ways of pushing them out of their comfort zones."
So last season, Rangers took the decision to field a team with an average age of just 18 in the Development League.
"The average age of the opposition was 20," Mulholland remembers. "One team we played had over 400 first team appearances, while we only had 30. It was really tough, especially at the start, and we were fourth bottom at one point.
"But we kept improving and eventually finished sixth. In the Youth Cup our average age was even younger - 17-and-a-half, but we reached the final against Celtic."
At the end of the season, the radical decision was taken to pull out of the Development League altogether.
Instead, Mulholland has arranged a series of 'friendlies' against some of the most stellar sides in Europe. In July and August they took on the likes of Club Brugge and PSV Eindhoven, and their fixture list for the first half of 2017/18 has just been announced.
Mulholland admits it offers the prospect of hidings from the likes of Everton and Benfica, but that the opportunity to improve outweighs any potential problems for his squad.
This brought to mind a quote from Xavi about Barcelona's La Masia: "Some youth academies worry about winning. We worry about education."
Mulholland wholeheartedly agrees.
"At Rangers, winning is embedded in the culture of the club at all age levels," he says. "We have won more domestic trophies than any other club side in the world. But we have to redress the balance.
"We still want that expectation of winning whenever you pull on the Rangers jersey, but also to challenge the young players more. Sometimes that can mean sacrificing results in the short term because you are trying to achieve a longer-term goal."
The upcoming fixtures have created a huge buzz at the club.
"For our boys, getting handed a fixture list like that was a massive boost," Mulholland says.
"It was even exciting for experienced staff like Graeme Murty (head coach of the Development Squad). And the second half of the season will have even more big names, because teams will be coming out of the Youth Champions League."
There are plans to play more men's teams and Under-23 sides as well - anything to challenge the players.
Mulholland says the Academy is about creating the DNA of a Rangers player - from Under-20s to Under-10s and below.
"We want players who are aggressive, with great technique," he says. "We want them to be dominant one v one, be it in defence or attack, and to be comfortable on the ball.
Coerver Coaching is influential at younger age levels, with three full-time Coerver coaches on the staff.
Mulholland says he doesn't where Rangers' one-year sabbatical from the Development League will end.
But he insists: "This is a time of great transition for Scottish football. I think the Development League will probably come to an end anyway at the end of this season.
"Malky Mackay (Performance Director of the SFA) has been very supportive and the SPL have too. There's an acceptance that if we want Scottish football to improve then we need to start doing things differently.
Development squad fixtures 2017/18:
12 September – Brighton & Hove Albion (H)
16 September – Man City (A)
26 September – Leicester City (H)
1 October – Brentford (A)
10 October – Tottenham (H)
17 October – AZ Alkmaar (A)
27 October – Liverpool (H or A – tbc)
29 October – SFA Youth Cup
2 November – Mechelen (A)
5 November to 15 November – U19 internationals
15 November – Berwick Rangers 1st team (testimonial) (A)
22 November – SFA Youth Cup
27 November – Benfica (A)
5 December – Queen of the South 1st team (A)
tbc December – Southampton (A)
16 December – Everton (A)
8 to 21 January – Spanish training camp involving 3 games against La Liga opposition
27 January – SFA Youth Cup