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Bairns heading for the top!

Scottish Guardiola?

On the back of a 13 game win streak which has seen them claim top spot in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League, Celtic are a side in devastatingly astute form.

Contrastingly, the First Division campaign has been an inconsistent one for Falkirk with too many defeats in their chase to pip nearest rivals Ross County to promotion.

Both sides however, have had similarly clinical performances in the League Cup resulting in the surprisingly thrilling semi-final at Hampden on the 29th of January.

It was Falkirk’s first appearance in a major semi-final since their historic Scottish Cup run in 2009, where they were eventually beaten by an overpowering Rangers side.

They produced a revenge act this season with a 3-2 win against Rangers at the Falkirk Stadium in the 3rd round and since that point have attracted resounding praise for their breath-taking brand of football.

Led by former Hearts and Dundee United player Steven Pressley, the Bairns play a stylish attacking type of football which is built upon a strong, organised foundation – much like the style their manager was renowned for as a player.

Pressley – who led Falkirk to relegation in his maiden season – has recovered an ailing Falkirk side to a prominent force in Scottish football.

Although having never won the Scottish League, Falkirk are one of the oldest sides in Scotland after being founded in 1876.

Their recent relative success is testament to their youth structure – first led by former manager Eddie May before being taken to a new level under Craig McPherson – with their first team squad boasting 10 academy graduates.

Of those graduates, at least 6 have made over 10 appearances – more than contributing to their season so far.

Approaching the Celtic game, there was focus put, quite rightly, on the in-form Celtic side.

The media cast up the surprise 2-0 Scottish Cup defeat to Ross County as the last time Celtic met a First Division side in a domestic cup semi-final.

Neil Lennon had to make sure that his Bhoys weren’t dealt another surprise blow by the Bairns.

Of the Pressley’s Bairns, Farid El-Alagui, Mark Millar and Jay Fulton were the particular focus of attention before the game.

El-Alagui has scored 21 goals in all competitions this year, offering Falkirk a talismanic figure in which they build their play around.

Former Celtic youth player Mark Millar struggled to make the breakthrough at Parkhead under Gordon Strachan, but his first match against his old club since leaving represented him with a chance to get one over on his former side.

As mentioned, Falkirk have invested a lot of faith in their youth players and no better example of that faith paying dividends is 17 year old midfielder Jay Fulton.

Brother to Dale – also in the Falkirk squad – and son of former Hearts legend Stevie, Jay began his youth career at Celtic before making the move to Falkirk.

The gangly midfielder shows a calm state of mind when faced with pressure for someone so young. At 17, his performance in this semi-final was one which belied his years.

Although not dominating the play, Fulton made enough of a contribution through his equalising goal in the first half for Celtic to consider him a threat.

He isn’t the only player under 20 who is developing a name for himself, with Murray Wallace, Kieran Duffie, Stephen Kingsley and Craig Sibbald all attracting interest with their fantastic displays.

Sibbald especially, may be the most difficult player for Falkirk to hold on to after reported suitors from the Old Firm, Arsenal, Spurs, Man City and Liverpool all showing interest.

The 16 year old only made his debut in July, yet has appeared 19 times for Falkirk, including that famous defeat of the Ibrox side..

All the aforementioned players featured at Hampden against Celtic, and to a certain extent did not disappoint.

Fulton got the goal which had Celtic worried for a time, until going on to win 3-1. Wallace played well in defence as did Duffie but were given a harsh lesson in top class striking by Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes, surely a reminder for the youngsters that their short term development rests solely in the hands of their current club.

El-Alagui and Miller played well at times, with Miller showing sporadically that he is immensely talented in the middle of the park. From the first whistle it was apparent that the midfielder knew how to retain possession among some of the best central midfielders in the country.

Sibbald made a fleeting appearance at the end of the match – he had only recently returned from a potentially terrible knee injury – but it was a significant substitution, with Pressley showing that he is more than confident the young winger can cut it amongst illustrious opposition.

The real star on the day for Falkirk though, was an unknown Mancunian wearing the number 10 shirt so famous among Falkirk fans.

In a similar role to that occupied by the legendary Russell Latapy, Kallum Higginbotham terrorised Celtic’s defence with a performance full of flamboyancy.

At 22 years of age, Higginbotham has enjoyed a mediocre career with Oldham, Accrington and Rochdale until settling at Falkirk.

Now under the stewardship of Pressley he has excelled in a role just behind El-Alagui, providing the creative thrust to a side which has plenty of power and passing in abundance as well as being very capable defensively.

For Fulton’s goal, Higginbotham demonstrated a magnificent body swerve to lose Celtic’s Victor Wanyama before playing a perfectly weighted pass in to the winger’s path to score the goal.

Although Celtic ran out deserved winners, for long spells the First Division side performed a role reversal, dominating their loftier opponents.

Now after the disappointment of missing out on a cup final, the Falkirk Bairns must continue performing with a courageous attacking approach which has served them so well thus far.

Falkirk are slowly but surely developing an identity based on successful top-class youth players well on their way to taking themselves and their club to the top!

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Coming next: Who’s better – Part 2.

Kids will win everything!

Young, Smalling, Jones and Cleverley after Community Shield win.

Writing from a Scottish perspective, it is easy to attribute our domestic games devastating decline to lack of money. Looking at the money spinning sponsorship that the English game has had, as well as the Spanish League and German League, it could be said that Scotland has become such a poor footballing nation on all levels due to the lack of real funding in our game.

However, is it all about finances, or has the recent revelation in the quality of youth players at top European clubs, put our own country’s youth system into damning perspective?

Celtic and Rangers, who are equipped with state of the art training facilities and youth academies, have only 7 and 10 home-grown players in their squads respectively.

Of these players, only James Forrest for Celtic and Jamie Ness, John Fleck, Gregg Wylde, Andy Little and Allan McGregor have made over 10 appearances for their club and could be considered regulars. A damning statistic considering the evident lack of money in Scottish football, and also where there is a growing trend that the Old Firm have consistently bought Scottish players from sides such as Hearts, Hibs and Dundee United. This trend disproves the point that Scottish youth players just aren’t good enough, but more that, at the big clubs especially, youth players just aren’t getting a chance despite the real lack of quality in the first teams already.

Focusing on Celtic and Rangers may be seen as an easy option, but being the most dominant teams in Scottish football, both clubs represent the best chance for our youth players to be tested against high class opposition domestically and more significantly in Europe too.

So, are our players just not good enough? Or are the managers at top level in Scotland too scared to take risks when promoting youth players to their squad?

 

There could be a case for the latter, and the examples of Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal and most significantly Manchester Utd could provide examples of how it doesn’t always take money, to achieve the best results.

There was much made of the ‘you’ll never win anything with kids’ statement by Alan Hansen when describing the chances of Manchester United’s golden generation lifting the Premiership title in 1995, but contrary to much of what Alan Hansen says, he was proved wrong and the side went on to lift that title, along with many more in the next 10 years.
Not many people predicted a second coming of a United ‘golden generation’ but from the start of this season, it appears to have happened.

Sir Alex Ferguson, following winning the championship last year as well as reaching the Champions League, has managed to strengthen his side with youthful acquisitions and the emergence of top class players from the youth system. The sign of a good manager is not resting on his laurels and Ferguson has done this time and time again, reaching a consistently high standard every time.

Firstly, the capture of Ashley Young was possibly the best of the summer, with the England midfielder beginning the season with 2 goals and 3 assists in 5 games. Secondly, Ferguson was able to sign highly rated England Under 21 international Phil Jones from Blackburn and David De Gea from Atletico Madrid, two players who will most definitely spend the best years of their career in Manchester.

Most significantly for United this season, the emergence of Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck and Chris Smalling, although not directly from the youth system, has took the team’s game to a whole new level. Cleverley had managed to start all four of United’s Premier League games after his outstanding performance in the second half of the Community Shield, keeping Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher out the team and providing another creative spark in the last third for United. Sadly though, the midfielder was injured in the 5-0 United win at Bolton, an injury which he could have definitely done without.

Welbeck has also emerged from the shadows at Old Trafford, after a successful loan spell at Sunderland last year. Starting the first three games of United’s season before being injured, his electric pace, smart link up play and Cantona-esque composure in front of goal has led to two goals in three games, keeping Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov out the squad.

Both players have turned themselves in to Manchester United regulars, and the sooner they return from injury the stronger the team will get. However, one player who remains in the starting XI and a pivotal part of the squad is Chris Smalling.

Smalling, changing from centre back to right back, has took his game to a whole new level after a brilliant debut season with the champions and doesn’t look like stopping his outstanding form. Although signed from Fulham for £10million two summers ago, Ferguson has managed to trust Smalling on the biggest stage, and after an assured display, as well as a goal against Chelsea in the Community Shield, he has made the right back slot his own. This led to special praise from Ferguson and international manager Fabio Capello, who started the defender in his side’s latest qualifiers against Bulgaria and Wales.

De Gea, Smalling and Jones will provide stability for United for many years to come and have already shown they can be relied upon in the absence of Ferdinand, Vidic and the retirement of Van Der Sar. Young, Cleverley, Welbeck as well as Hernandez and Rooney will be relied upon to create the attacking verve and flamboyancy that has always been attributed with Ferguson sides.

The most devastating thing for the rest of the Premier League though, is that this side is filled with relatively experienced young players such as Rooney, Anderson, Fletcher, Nani and Young, but with Cleverley, Welbeck, Jones, De Gea and Smalling added to the squad, the kids have every chance of dominating domestically as well as in Europe for years to come.

The emerging youthful side Ferguson has built has also managed to achieve United’s best start to a season under his tenure, a statistic which begs the question can they still move up a level? If so, Ferguson could find himself winning even more with his kids.

Success is most definitely now going to depend on producing high quality youth players, and teams such as Rangers and Celtic, with little money to spend, will have to follow the trend or see the terrible effect it will have on the quality of their play and success domestically and in Europe.