In 2001, I played in the Willem II Youth Football Tournament for Glasgow Rangers FC under 13’s. After a narrow 1-0 defeat by Arsenal in our opening game we got, to use a colloquial term in the West of Scotland, ‘pumped’ in all of our remaining fixtures by opposition including Alax, Nante’s and Feyernoord- who were technically, and physically, far superior in every department.
To further compound our misery, our pathetic performances were the polar opposite to those of the gifted U15 side, who produced a string of dominant displays en route to the final of the prestigious tournament. Since its inception in August 1993, the Willem II youth tournament has featured the top international clubs and some of the most talented young football players in the World on an annual basis.
But no other youth side will ever face a team as talented as Rangers’ opponents in the 2001 Final of the Willem II tournament; a Barcelona side orchestrated by Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique. The team was also supplemented by a further three current professionals in Victor Vasquez (Club Brugge), Marc Valiente (Real Valladolid) and Marc Pedraza of CD Numancia.
Unsurprisingly, this vintage crop of La Masia youngsters routinely routed their poor, hopelessly overmatched opponents. A comment from Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, after Francesc Fabregas arrived at the Gunners, a mere 18 months after that youth tournament, summed up their superiority, he stated, “When Cesc arrived here (Arsenal) I spoke with his mother and she told me that his team (Barcelona Academy Team) were used to winning 6-0, 7-0, 8-0 and 9-0,”
Yet despite Barca’s embarrassment of riches, the final was a keenly contested affair- which the Catalans edged 2-0. Although the classy Catalan side were clearly a step up in quality, the young Ibrox hopefuls were not totally outclassed, and contributed significantly to an absorbing final, rich in technical ability and skill. That final seems to have been a catalysing event for the young Catalan side who, in the very next season, became the all-conquering group of young Cule’s who won an unprecedented treble in the unforgettable, and now legendary, season of 2002-2003.
Dundee United midfielder, Paul Paton, was a member of the Rangers team who played Barcelona in the Willem II cup final. In an exclusive interview, Paton recalled his memories of the tournament, the 26 year old stated, “We performed well in the tournament playing against Brugge, Willem II and Arsenal. We defeated Feyenoord, who had De Guzman, (Swansea midfielder and Dutch International in the semi finals,”
“But the Barcelona team were a step up in class, physically bigger, stronger, fitter and faster. At the time, I didn’t realise there players would go on to be some of the best players in the world. But it was obvious that they were a special side. Almost every player in that team has gone on to carve a career in Spanish football.”
The fact that the same youth team has produced three of the greatest players of their of generation, and in Messi, probably the finest player in football history, ensures that the ‘Class of 87’ will forever be enshrined in the history of FC Barcelona and their legendary talent conveyor belt academy, La Masia.
A simple Google search on ‘Barcelona’s Class of 87’ yields a litany of literature written about the fabled ‘Baby Dream Team’. Yet an identical search about the Rangers class of 1987 offers up nothing. The brilliant batch of young boys at Ibrox literally became forgotten Men. Surely the strong showing at the Willem II tournament should have been a platform for further success, right? Wrong. Soon after, the team seemed to plateau before alarmingly beginning their rapid descent into footballs abyss, where the vast majority of the players remain.
The aforementioned Paul Paton of Dundee United, and Bob Harris, who plays for English League One side Sheffield United are the only two players from that gifted Ibrox youth side to have properly made the grade in the professional game.
Tellingly, they were both released from the Ibrox club at 16 years old. In what is befitting of the Scottish ‘way’, the concerns about both players seemed to be in regards to there of lack height rather than deficiency in ability.
At the same time, many of their teammates from the Willem II tournament team, who have since faded into obscurity, were awarded professional contracts by the Glasgow giants. Paul Paton, without a hint of bitterness or resentment, recalls his painful snub from his boyhood heroes, he stated, “There are always favoured players in every set up and it was them that were rewarded with pro contracts. I was released along with Bob Harris and funnily enough we’re now playing at a higher level than anyone else in that side. Maybe that shows that Rangers failed to spot what we knew we had. We weren’t given a chance and that’s my only regret. If I went full time at 17 rather than 21 I’d be a much better player.
Now I am in no position to disagree with Paton, who has plenty more knowledge and experience of football than I will ever have. But, in some respects, I think he has risen to the top level because of his snub from Rangers, not in spite of it. Instead of staying cocooned in the prosperous comfort zone of Murray Park, being lulled into a false sense of security of dominating games in the U19s or Reserve Leagues, he started at the very bottom of the senior football ladder, with 3rd Division side Queens Park, and made his way up the leagues the hard way.
His experience of the harsh and unforgiving environments of the lower leagues strengthened his resolve to be a success in the senior game, and gave him a greater appreciation of the toil it takes to really make it as a footballer.
His undeniable talent was complemented by; commitment, hard work, dedication and a desire to better himself- qualities which I am sure were refined and developed during his apprenticeship in the lower leagues. He is now thriving in the top tier of the Scottish game. So much so, in a miraculous twist of fate, today Paul Paton got ‘Man of the Match’ for Dundee United in their 3-1 victory over, you guessed it, Rangers at Ibrox! The result sent Paton’s side into the Scottish Cup Final, and typically, the combative 26 year old was in the thick of the action in the Dundee United engine room, enjoying every minute against his boyhood heroes.
When asked about his opinion on the failure of his former teammates to make the grade in the senior game, he said, “Murray Park was a good experience and it felt like a privilege at the time. Maybe the boys that went full time took it for granted, got too much too young and read their own press. At the time they were the best players in the county at their age. Maybe they never applied themselves and didn’t work hard enough.”
Although the national approach to youth development in Scotland has been notoriously archaic for a number of years, perhaps Rangers youth academy coaches and the Murray Park policy makers were especially negligent in their duty of care to diligently develop the potential of their youth team products. This is a quote from the clubs former Chief Executive, Martin Bain, given in a press conference in 2004, which seems to add credence to this conviction.
He stated, ‘”If I’m very honest, the focus was on the first team for most of the nine years that I’ve been here”
Alarm bells should have been ringing when one of the most influential men at Rangers publicly denounced his clubs antiquated approach to youth development. The statement basically lays bare the brutal truth that the Ibrox powerbrokers abandoned the process of youth development in favour of procuring established talent for the 1st team for a close to a decade. This is in spite of the fact that fully three years prior to his comments Rangers spent £14 million on the plush Murray Park complex.
When I quizzed Paul Paton about the success of Murray Park, the former Rangers youth stated, “As far as I’m concerned no real talent has came through Murray Park. The young boys playing in the first team wouldn’t make the reserves in years gone by.”
These damning comments seem to confirm that the supposedly fertile terrain of Murray Park, which should have been used to cultivate and maintain a dedicated and focussed philosophy, that prioritised, above all else, organic long term sustainable development, was instead turned into barren landscape after being sabotaged by the prevailing, and fundamentally unsustainable principle of investing in readymade success for the senior team.
This subordination of youth development in favour of buying expensive foreign players the club couldn’t afford literally killed Rangers FC on 13th June 2012. The current incarnation in the club now is officially named ‘The Rangers Football Club Limited’. As a direct consequence of the fatal financial problems, which still plague the Ibrox club, they do not have any sort of scouting infrastructure in place at the club. No need to rub your eyes in disbelief: you read that last sentence correctly the club has no scouting network whatsoever.
Unsurprisingly, this approach is the antithesis to that of Barcelona’s where the emphasis has been on consistently producing quality home grown players to complement the 1st team since the appointment of Laureano Ruiz, as the general coordinator of youth football for the club in 1974.
From that point on, the overwhelming focus of youth development has been on cultivating a style of football based on the philosophy of possession play, through the marriage of touch and technique, as opposed to relentless running and physique, which prevails in Scotland. The long term result of this vision: the inimitable brand of ‘tiki-taka’ football played by all Barca teams from the academy to the Camp Nou. The talent conveyor belt, which continues to churn out world class individuals and sides such as ‘The Baby Dream Team’, from the La Masia breeding ground, could not be contrasted more sharply with the barren land of Murray Park.
Whilst the Barcelona players are literally living out their dreams, the former Rangers youth prospects suffer the nightmare of tainted memories, broken ambition and bitterness that they failed, or were prevented, from truly fulfilling their huge potential, which was abundantly clear to anyone who watched their fantastic displays at the famous Willem II tournament.
Ultimately, Rangers’ negligible approach to youth development was one of the main culprits for the creative cull of such a promising batch of players that went off the boil so badly, so quickly. But there were certainly other chief protagonists in this tale of woe and tragedy.
Still, it can be said, with a fair degree of certainty, that the Murray Park powerbrokers had a significant part to play in the failure of their class of 87. They flagrantly undermined the process of youth development in the pursuit of 1st team success. On the other hand, Barcelona’s meticulous and careful cultivation of youth talent at La Masia doubtlessly allowed their gifted young footballers to bloom into solid professionals in some cases and global superstars in others.
However, in 2001, the whole process of youth talent development in Scotland was in a state of decay. So whilst Rangers cannot shoulder all of the blame for the suffocation of a generation of potential stars, the Ibrox club stands accused of the culpable homicide of the Class of 87.
But in Britain we live in a society which abides by the mantra of ‘rehabilitation and reform’ of our offenders. So let’s hope the Ibrox club and, Scottish youth football in general, can make the most of their second chance and begin to make a ‘meaningful contribution to society’ by turning the potential of our most talented young starlets into tangible success for our clubs and our country.