The Class of 2017: What's happened to the best forward prospects in Scotland?

Oli Shaw back in 2017

Oli Shaw back in 2017

written by: @TheGersReport

A common trend that spans across leagues around the world is an investment of money, resources, & sometimes just lip service, in the importance of developing a pipeline from the youth teams at a club into the first team. Young players are taught to be patient & to bide their time until they are ready for first team football.

I think it’s about being patient. I am one of the younger players in the squad, it’s about biding my time and awaiting that opportunity which I am sure will come as the gaffer is not frightened to give young players their chance.
— 17-year old Oli Shaw (Edinburgh Evening News - November 2017)

Oli Shaw is an exception in Scottish football. He was given the opportunity to take key steps in his development as a player with significant first team minutes as a teenager. In return, Shaw has scored goals at a elite rate for the Scottish Premiership. Obviously, his sample size is still emerging but over the past two seasons, Shaw has averaged 0.52 goals per 90 minutes. That rate is similar to the likes of Louis Moult & Liam Boyce prior to their departures to England. The key difference is that those two were 26-years old when they left, Oli Shaw turned 20 last month.

Another difference is that neither Boyce or Moult were home grown talents. They were journeyman forwards who found success in Scotland. Shaw may become one of the first Scottish born forwards to demand significant transfer interest from other leagues in a long, long time.

Since 2013-14, the only Scottish Premiership forwards who merited a transfer fee from non-Scottish clubs have been: Tony Watt, Jason Cummings, Stevie May, Greg Stewart, & Simon Murray.

That’s it.

Watt was 20 years old, Cummings & May were 21, while Stewart & Murray were 26-years old when they signed.

Given that four of the five have returned to Scotland permanently or on loan, it’s safe to say that young Scottish strikers aren’t necessarily going to be heading many transfer lists this summer. Ironically, Simon Murray is the only player on that list who is actually experiencing some success elsewhere averaging 0.48 goals per 90…… South Africa.

Simon Murray playing for Bidvest Wits in South Africa

Simon Murray playing for Bidvest Wits in South Africa

This is an ongoing issue. Scotland has a pretty woeful track record for developing talent that goes onto thrive in other leagues. There are obvious outliers like Andrew Robertson, Tom Cairney, Stuart Armstrong, & Oliver McBurnie. Robertson (briefly) & Armstrong were products of Dundee United’s system while Cairney & McBurnie come from the youth set-up in England. So even these exceptions, have little-to-no link to the Scottish Premiership besides Stuart Armstrong & his move didn’t happen until he spent multiple seasons playing for Celtic.

Andrew Robertson, courtesy of SNS

Andrew Robertson, courtesy of SNS

Ultimately, the fact is that Scottish clubs are doing a poor job of developing top-level talent that can compete for minutes in other leagues & in turn, has fostered a national team that hasn’t been relevant in two or three DECADES.

In fact, there isn’t a single Scottish club in the list of the 50 European clubs who have trained the most players who play in the top 31 divisions of European football. “Following UEFA definition, training clubs are teams where footballers played for at least three seasons between 15 and 21 years.”

Scottish clubs aren’t even supplying their own clubs with players from their youth system. League-wide, only 16.5% of first team minutes have been given to players who were at the club for at least three years between the ages of 15 & 21. According to the CIES Football Observatory, this is the 13th best rate in Europe. For more context, Hibs has the best rate of giving 27.2% of its minutes to players it has developed in those formative years.

That ranks 74th in Europe…..74th!

In another CIES Football Observatory study, they identified the 20 most experienced young players in Europe based on their birth year. They ranked players from 22 different competitions, “using an exclusive methodology weighting domestic league minutes played by footballers during the last two years according to the sporting strength of employer teams.”

There were two Scottish based players on the combined lists of 80 players. Harry Cochrane & Anthony McDonald from Hearts, which was mostly driven by the first team minutes they played last season. The two have combined for 300 minutes of first team football this year in the Scottish Premiership, so it’s safe to say Craig Levein has shifted his approach to cultivating the development of these two youngsters.

This feels like a really long preamble to the actual focus of this blog post. Back in the summer of 2017, I applied an age-adjusted approach to tabulating goals scored by forwards in the Scottish Developmental league. This became the basis of a now annual project in which I rank the best young forward prospects in Scottish football. The premise is pretty straight forward, when projecting a player’s ceiling of development, you can’t look at their goal scoring records as if they are equals. If two players score at the same rate & one is 19-years old, while the other is 16….who do you think the better prospect will be?

The stats suggest that Aberdeen’s Joe Nuttall (19 at the beginning of the season) is a better goal scorer this season, but who has the highest ceiling of growth? Nuttall or someone like Rangers’ Andy Dallas who averaged slightly less goals per 90 but is two & a half years younger?
How about a 16-year old Zak Rudden whose age adjusted goals suggests he’s a better prospect then Craig Wighton?
— The Rangers Report, May 2017

It’s now been nearly two years since the original set of rankings & I wanted to see how some of the players were doing.  I’ve categorized the results to see which ones  have become first team regulars & which players have disappeared from Scottish football altogether.

Now, keep in mind everything I laid out in the first part of this blog post. 

  • Managers in Scotland don't give minutes to teenagers.
  • One of the byproducts of that is the fact there is no market outside of Scotland for Scottish-born goal scorers.
  • I guess it's a chicken or the egg kind of thing

I’ve created infographics to provide the necessary information for each of the prospects.  They include their current age, when their contract expires, where they ranked in the Age Adjusted goal list, how many first team minutes they have played since then (with their 2016-17 club), their Goals Above Average rate, the minutes they have played elsewhere (usually out on loan), what level those minutes were at & what age they were for those minutes.

Additionally, I provided a visual to show you where that Goals Above Average rate ranks for all forwards at that level since 2013-14.

Lastly, I categorized what level of a prospect the forward was back in 2016-17 based on the stats.  The tiers are based on Steve Dangle’s Prospect Pyramid that he designed for his coverage of Toronto Maple Leafs.  From a club perspective: each team has a group of young prospects that have different ceilings to their careers.  These ceilings are not fixed & can be quite fluid based on coaching, sports science, individual determination, etc.

I created the following visual to go along with that pyramid back in October 2017 (the last time I called out Scottish clubs for not developing young players).

Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 2.12.56 PM.png

The best prospect on the list…is also the only clear cut success (so far)

Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 2.02.59 PM.png

A note on how to read that chart embedded in the infograph. Note that Shaw has had a Goals Above Average rate of +0.258 (basically how much better per 90 minutes he has been than the ‘average’ forward since 2013-14). To add context, you can find that 0.25 mark on the chart…to the left are all forwards who have scored at a worse rate…to the right, the numbers of forwards who have scored at a better rate.

Have gotten a sniff of first team football, but the results aren’t there yet

Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 2.39.52 PM.png
Screen Shot 2019-03-03 at 9.46.24 AM.png
Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 2.31.54 PM.png
Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 2.47.38 PM.png

Connor McLennan is a prime example of a youngster who needs more first team minutes.  Even though he struggled out on loan last season with a historically bad Brechin City side, he has shown flashes of being able to be productive at a Premiership level. 

I’m going to pull out a tweet I first shared back in November

Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 2.53.29 PM.png

Connor McLennan may end up being bad….but we know that Stevie May is bad. McLennan has played 565 LESS minutes than May this season. McLennan’s Goal Above Average as a 19-year old is -0.07, May’s is…….-0.20.

Loaned out & showed why he’s a top prospect

Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 10.28.19 AM.png
Screen Shot 2019-03-03 at 9.18.27 AM.png
Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 6.55.05 PM.png
Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 6.39.38 PM.png
Screen Shot 2019-03-03 at 9.07.26 AM.png

Besides Zak Rudden, the sample sizes are still quite small for the group above. However, their goal output is on par with some big names in Scottish football.

  • Rory Currie’s Goals Above Average for League One is slightly better than Lawrence Shankland’s as a 19-year old

  • Sample Size Warning but….Bruce Anderson’s GAA in the Premiership this season is the same as Moussa Dembélé’s as a 20-year old & his Goals Above Average in the Championship is only slightly less then Chris Kane’s as a 22-year old & is identical to Kenny Miller’s when he averaged 0.63 goals per 90 as a 36-year old.

  • Zak Rudden’s numbers have much more validity given the minutes he’s played & his GAA rates are similar to Osman Sow & Anthony Stokes at the Championship level. Rudden is 19…Sow was 26, while Stokes was 28.

Andy Dallas is still finding his level of play…he clearly was too good for League Two & is goalless so far in the Championship (albeit in only 300 minutes). Rangers would be best off getting him out on loan from the outset of the season so he can get a real extended run in someone’s first team squad.

Meanwhile, Hamilton have the league’s most anemic attack & I’m not saying Ryan Tierney is the answer…I’m just saying it makes zero sense that he’s never been given the chance to prove that he isn’t the answer. How does a 21-year old goal scoring prospect only have 300 minutes of any first team football in his career? By the way…his Goals Above Average in League One falls between a 19-year old Lawrence Shankland & a 23-year old Nicky Clark.

Deemed not good enough & now proving that they may actually be…good enough

Screen Shot 2019-03-03 at 11.50.08 AM.png
Screen Shot 2019-03-03 at 12.01.20 PM.png

Partick Thistle’s asset management after being relegated really comes into question when it pertains to Kevin Nisbett.  You would think moving down a level would allow you to give youngsters some minutes to see if they could perform at that level.  Instead they have continued to invest minutes in a 32-year old Kris Doolan…whose Goals Above Average in the Championship is a -0.146.  Meanwhile, Nisbett is thriving, albeit at a lower level.

Nisbett’s goal rate in League One is the equivalent of a 19-year old Lawrence Shankland. 

Meanwhile, Joe Nuttall hasn’t seen many minutes back in England…but when he does he’s producing & proving that Aberdeen may have been shortsighted when they decided not to re-sign him a couple of summers ago.

Deemed not good enough & really haven’t proven their old clubs wrong

Screen Shot 2019-02-21 at 7.53.08 PM.png
Screen Shot 2019-03-03 at 5.28.32 PM.png
Screen Shot 2019-03-03 at 12.20.17 PM.png
Screen Shot 2019-03-03 at 5.19.43 PM.png

I don’t think I’ll ever understand the hype for Craig Wighton as a top prospect & I know I won’t ever understand what compelled Hearts to sign him to a three-year contract. Here’s what I wrote about Wighton this summer, prior to his transfer to Hearts.

From July 2018

From July 2018

I still think there’s hope for Neil McLaughlin, who ranked second in 2017 & first in 2018 in these age adjusted rankings.  Whenever he has gone out on loan he’s played mostly as a wide attacker…despite the fact that he scored for fun in the Developmental League. 

Meanwhile, Dylan Mackin hasn’t exactly failed in his stints in the Championship & now in League Two.  His goal production in the Championship has been slightly below average & given his age, I still think he can do a decent job at that level.

Development is in-house with the reserve team

Logan Chalmers (courtesy of DUFC)

Logan Chalmers (courtesy of DUFC)

Eighteen-year old Logan Chalmers has only played 24 first team minutes since he was first profiled as a 16-year old who ranked fifth in Vollman age-adjusted goals. Dundee United have decided to in-house his development & last season he continued to thrive (ranking 9th in last year’s rankings).

I wrote the following last summer:

Logan Chalmers is another returnee to these rankings as he ranked fifth as a 16-year old last year. Then his goals per 90 was 0.52, while this season it dipped to 0.36. Now entering his 18-year old season, it appears that 2018-19 will be a critical season for Chalmers. He’s been seeing time as a substitute for the first team this pre-season & it will be interesting to see if that continues once the Championship season starts for Dundee United. If not, it seems as if he’d be overdue for a loan stint down to a League One club.
— Modern Fitba (July 2018)

The loan stint hasn’t happened yet.  Given that Chalmers will be 19-years old next season & entering his final season of his contract…Dundee United have a real obligation to get him first team football - either at Tannadice Park or out on loan. 

Final Thoughts

Teams in Scotland do a poor job of creating pathways from their developmental programs into the first team.  The data mentioned in the beginning of this post prove that & the fact that only one of the top forward prospects from 2017 gets regular first team minutes is another indictment against Scottish teams. 

The irony here is that the three top goal scorers in the league this season are all 22-years old or younger (Morelos, Cosgrove, & Edouard) & all of them had to be imported in from elsewhere.  What will it take for teams to take minutes away from aging players on the downsides of their careers (Kenny Miller, Kris Doolan) or from players who have proven that they are no longer goal threats (Stevie May) & shift that investment into players who have real upsides?  To what extent should the SFA develop more incentives for clubs to give their young players first team minutes? 

There really is a sense that there is some real talent in the youth ranks in Scotland right now & it comes down to the management teams at each club to embrace the urgency of getting these kids into their line-ups.  Giving a 19-year old a chance to lead the line of attack may actually ensure you some more job security than giving that role to a forward in his 30s.  It’s a smart, calculated gamble to give a player with actual upside key minutes rather than holding out hope that a striker finds his form of five years ago. 

Some notes…

  • There are a handful of players from the 2016-17 list that are no longer playing professional football, while a couple of others are playing at lower levels.  Remember you can check out the original blog post here.

  • Last year’s rankings include some new names that are thriving out on loan this season.  The likes of Aidan Keena & Cedwyn Scott were profiled in this follow-up post from this season. 

  • I plan on doing another set of rankings for this season in the summer.  It will be intriguing to see what impact returning to a reserve football set-up will have on the minutes that young players get.  Does crowbarring Connor Sammon into a reserve team lineup block the development of an up & coming youngster? 

  • Reflecting on what the numbers get right & wrong is fun…& I plan on doing a big write-up of what predictions the numbers got right this summer (like the downfalls of Kyle Lafferty & Jamie Maclaren) & what the numbers got wrong (foreseeing a decline in goals for Rangers & the uncertainty of how good Alfredo Morelos could be). 

  • This was written under the influence of Amyl & the Sniffers, Dead Vibrations, Pleasure Forever, & Toy.