It’s The System Stupid!


The Quality guru, W.Edwards Deming said it best “A bad system will beat a good person every time” Of course, he was referring to the workplace but is our football system any different?

Deming has been a constant in my life since the 80’s when I read his seminal book ‘Out of the Crisis’ How appropriate is that title to our current predicament in Scottish football? Over the years I have attempted to apply the Deming principles in the workplace. Some with great success while others with glorious failure. However, I have learned by doing so and we now need to use this thinking in football.. Following my last blog post, I received loads of responses with a common theme. To summarise them, we are indeed at crisis point and there were things from the past that we should learn from.

In recent weeks, I have heard a lot of common messages. I attended the SFA Quality Mark awards where ex-Scotland manager Craig Brown gave his views on grassroots football. He talked about Sir Alex (It was Fergie back then) when he was Aberdeen manager and how he changed the system at Aberdeen for the overall good of player development. I have also listened to Bumper Graham podcasts (the fantastic ‘The Big Interview’) from Neil Lennon, Gordon Strachan, Joe Jordan, Chris Sutton and many others who talk about their route through the development stages to make it to the top. There is a common thread through these talks that demonstrates the old system shaped what they became both as players and managers. This crystallised my thoughts further to conclude that the current system really is broken and action is required.

So what can I do to change the current system? I am but one voice and it will take many to rise up and challenge the status quo but here is my tuppence worth.

My proposal is to take the good bits from the past and meld it with the current environment. The world has changed and we need to acknowledge this. Let’s take the positives. Today the facilities are 100 times better. 3G/4G surfaces, floodlights, training kit, playing kit, light (expensive) state of the art football boots and balls. If we utilise these but take the lessons from the past then we just might start producing quality players again. Now, we might never produce a Messi or a Ronaldo as their environment is totally different to ours but how good would a modern day Baxter, Dalglish, Souness or McStay be for Scottish football.

The current system will produce players but will it produce them to the quality and numbers required to be ‘that nation again’? Two of the current crop that stand out for me are Kieran Tierney at Celtic and Barrie McKay at Rangers. Both are exciting and came through the existing system. My argument would be that they would come through whatever system is in place. Both hugely talented athletes with loads of potential. They are in fact exceptions to the rule. As a rule, the current system produces average and these two are outliers.

I am now going to demonstrate the current system and my blueprint for success through the experience of a player in the current system. I won’t name the player but it could apply to most players in the current system. At our grassroots club, we have had many talented players who have left at various ages to join senior clubs at pro-youth (academy) level. Some are still with the clubs however many have fallen out the academy system and returned to grassroots clubs. There is no fault with the players as they are chasing their dreams but the system is spitting them out as damaged goods. So back to my player. This player is a real talent. He was head and shoulders above most players in his league and was deservedly spotted and signed for a senior club. He is now playing in the academy system working under A and B licence coaches. So far, so good. With the talent and attributes he has and with good qualified coaches mentoring him then the foundations should be in place for him to at least reach the professional game. At 16, I truly believe he could make it (although I accept there are many variables in this assumption). Many will say that it is now up to him if he makes it or not. A little bit of that statement is correct however the system has a much bigger influence. Here’s why! He will only likely play 1 game per week. On a Sunday against another academy side. He will either not be allowed to play for the school team or decides he doesn’t fancy it now. He can’t play for any other club as he has signed a pro-youth contract. In that one game, he might not play the full game but only get 20, 30, 40 or 50 minutes on the field due to size of the squad. Yes, he is getting better coaching but how can he learn and develop with so little game time where he has to solve problems against good players? Are we really giving that player a chance to be successful and become a professional player?

Here is my view on what the new system would look like:

Starting at Pre-Secondary School – The current grassroots system is actually good at this age as it contains fun fours, super 5’s and 7-a-side. All fun formats with no scores or leagues. These formats are correct but should be supplemented by more ‘street games’ I would like to see many ‘Cruyff’ courts in local communities to encourage this free play. Additional ideas at this level would be futsal to be implemented across the board but particularly in winter months. Again more football played and encouraged in schools to allow proper technique to be developed.

After the player moves to Secondary School , this is where I see the big changes having to be addressed. ‘Project Brave’ may address some of the issues but like all central tenets there will be compromises. At this point players move to 11-a-side with competitive leagues. My view at this age is we should be getting in as many hours of football as possible while building in resilience. Looking back we played 3 games on a weekend. We played for our school in the morning; our Boys Club in the afternoon and our local Sunday league team. We need this back. Starting with the school system.There was real competition within schools and real honour to play for your District, Regional and National team. Many will remember the 1980 under 16 schoolboy international when Scotland beat England 5-4. Paul McStay, Ally Dick and John Robertson (Hearts) starred for Scotland while Paul Rideout scored a hat-trick for England. As a sidenote. The game was played in front of 72,000 at Wembley and televised live! This was probably the height of schoolboy football and teacher strikes decimated the years that followed. The time is right to get school football back to its rightful place leading youth football by dedicated PE teachers. Players at pro-youth level seem to reject school football or are told by their clubs not play. I would suggest that all players NEED to play and this will raise the standard.

During this age the Academy system needs to be addressed. Again looking back to learn some lessons. The top clubs will always have their academies but how can the smaller clubs survive by banking on discovering the next big thing who they can sell on?  In the past the big clubs of the time (Celtic BC, Eastercraigs, Drumchapel Amateurs, Hutchie Vale and Salvesen to name a few) attracted the best players. They were effectively acting as feeder clubs for the senior ranks. Aberdeen Boys Club tried to this for Aberdeen but Fergie scrapped it as it inhibited player development. He sent them back to their local clubs. His simple assumption was they had to play more. As is suggested, the academy teams are reduced then this will allow players to play for their Boys Club and will develop healthy competition. Why don’t we allow modern day ‘big clubs’ like Hutchie Vale, Syngenta, Cumbernauld Colts, Broomhill SC, East Kilbride FC, Cantera, Harmony Row and a few others to compete against Academy teams in a competitive league therefore getting best v best. These wouldn’t be stale academy games which I have witnessed but real competitive games where different problems will need to be solved.

My last pillar is community teams like my own. We have a role in both developing a lifelong love of the game and being the base for player development. Our ethos is to get as many playing for as long as possible. Our aim would be to create a fun (semi-competitive) structure which would allow all players to play. This would even include local players who are at top boys club or academy teams. Just think how the pressure is released when they come back and just play with their local mates. They might try different positions and experiment a bit in a risk free environment. They could play under age a few years above them to test themselves physically. It would be fun and that is the point.

I haven’t included adult amateurs or junior leagues but this is another source where players could be tied to a senior club but play for them in environments which will test other attributes.

So these are my ideas on what could be done to get best v best in conjunction with play for all. One player could play in all these games and we would get back to 3 games in a weekend plus training. Surely this is better than getting 20 minutes with an academy team away to Stranraer!

We really need to give our players the best chance of making it  and stop producing average players that the current system yields.

I started with Deming so let’s finish with Deming ” It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory”

PS Malky, you know where to get me!!


It’s The System Stupid!

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