Scottish champions Celtic have a genuine commitment to developing their academy players into first-teamers; we caught up with the club’s International Soccer Academy Manager to find out more…
Last May Celtic youngster Jack Aitchison became the club’s youngest ever goalscorer at 16 years and 71 days old after netting in the 7-1 romp over Motherwell in the final game of the season.
Aitchison, now 17, has gone on to make six senior appearances this season, scoring three times and he is just one of a long list of youngsters, past and present, who have graduated through the club’s St Ninian’s Academy and into the first XI.
In fact Willie McNab took great pride in telling us: “18 Academy players since 2001/02 that have now made their debut in the Champions League.”
Willie, who will be joining us in Boston on April 28, 29 to lead two coach education sessions, remembers the day when Aitchison scored.
“We were playing down at Annan with the U15s that day; Jack is just a year older than these kids and we were all listening on our phones and watching Twitter and we heard he had come on,” he said
“And then we heard he had scored. It was unbelievable, there was big cheer that went up in the changing room.
“You just need to look at Jack and Kieran Tierney, Liam Henderson, Callum McGregor and James Forrest, who have all been here since they were young kids. They are a fabulous example.”
Willie, who is also part of Celtic’s U15s set-up, told us he had recently caught up with Tierney – another Hoops graduate who has already faced Barcelona at the Camp Nou.
“I actually managed to speak to Kieran last week and although he is only a young lad himself he was giving some great advice to some of the younger lads coming through.
“He was telling them how he started just kicking a ball against a wall to practice his touch and working on his left foot, right foot.
“It is inspirational for the younger guys coming through. I work with the Under-15s and it’s aspirational and inspirational to look at someone like Kieran and what it could mean in a few years time if you are willing to work hard and live the right life off the pitch as well as on it.
“It is great to see so many young players getting their opportunity and it bodes well for the future.”
Willie recently went through six of his best tips for coaches and he says he regularly keeps abreast of coaching techniques from other soccer coaches and from other sports to keep ahead of the game.
“There was a basketball coach speaking recently about players taking responsibility for themselves and working hard and we actually showed the players before we went on the pitch last night,” he said.
“We played them the clip and then waited until after the session and it was about it being a team effort and not just about the individual and how they are always developing.
“The kids I have are just a couple of years away from potentially having a professional contract and being in and around the first team and it is becoming real for them.
“But they are still kids and developing and we have to give them that environment where they can still make mistakes and that it is okay to mistakes, but still get them ready for the chance when it comes along.”
Celtic Academy ethos
The ethos at Celtic’s Academy, set out by Chris McCart, is to “strive to develop first team regulars who are capable of performing in the Champions League for Celtic” and Willie told us that working at the highest level possible is uppermost in the coaches’ thoughts.
“The ethos set by Chris McCart is trying to develop players that can play at the highest level possible, be that in the Champions League or for their country and we’re hoping for Scotland because we have predominantly Scottish players in the Academy.
“We are under no illusions as coaches that is the level we are striving for and we know not every kid will hit those heights and maybe they will find a level elsewhere.
“I think it is now 18 youth Academy players since 2001/02 that have now made their debut in the Champions League. It’s an excellent record. Three of them did it this season – Kiernan Tierney, Liam Henderson and Callum McGregor.
“Tierney made his debut in the Nou Camp against Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez. I was talking to him the other day about it and he said it was just ‘unbelievable’ and in the second game against Man City where he scored he had a real battle with Raheem Sterling and that is the level we want the boys to get to.
“We do understand though that they develop at different rates and not all of then will make that level but if you shoot for that level, both on and off the pitch then it gives them the best opportunity to have a career within the game.”
“The technical basis is really important. We make sure a player can receive the ball, pass the ball, run with the ball, but there is also the tactical element too,” he added.
“That becomes really important especially when they start playing 11 a side. Our Under 12s now are starting to learn that side of the game about balance and not attacking with too many players and making sure you are not leaving yourself open to a counter-attack.
“The technical element is hugely important, but when the players get to 13 and upwards the tactical element is also introduced.”
With counter-attacking becoming more popular in the modern game we asked Willie whether the Academy starlets were well versed on how to break quickly and how to stop being caught out by quick-thinking opponents.
“Yes it’s more of a consideration these days. We also say ‘when you are attacking be in a good defensive position’ and so it’s knowing that when you are attacking you are at your most vulnerable.
“If you look at the stats and the technical report from the UEFA Champions League was that a quicker build up is now happening, apart from Barcelona, who are more methodical.
“Goals are being scored within three or four passes now and teams are going at you quickly and if you flood too many men forward, teams will just pick you off.
“If you look at Celtic and they way they play I think we’ve only conceded 22 league goals all season and very few of those, maybe none have been conceded from the counter-attack.
“We make sure that when we have possession for long periods, the door is shut behind you.
“So we say to our kids ‘when you are attacking be in a good defensive position and when you are defending be in a good offensive position’. ‘Be in an area where you can win the ball back and start a quick counter attack.’
“That is the information we are giving to our kids in the U14,” added Willie.