Scottish Football’s Dearth of Talent: Investigating an Exodus

It cannot be denied that the number of Scots departing clubs in their homeland at a young age is on the rise. 

Just this summer, the highly rated Calvin Ramsay, Rory Wilson and Charlie McArthur have all left Scottish Premiership clubs to pursue careers south of the border along with the likes of Lewis Ferguson and Josh Doig who have completed moves to Italy. The trend is unequivocally on the rise, which has prompted me to investigate further. Thus, today we’ll examine what attracts youngsters and entices them away from Scotland whilst also taking a look at the positive and negative effects their departures have on the country. 

Scotland Youth Football Transfers Finance Premier League Serie A Bundesliga Football Paradise
Art by Tushar Dey

Furthermore, we’ll take a closer look at some specific examples, such as the aforementioned, of deals which have and haven’t worked out whilst also focusing in on methods that have been used by other nations to promote and foster youth football. 

Let’s begin by investigating what draws Scotland’s top young footballers away from their country of origin. 

The chance to move to a much more distinguished club, most likely earn a higher wage, train at world-class facilities with top talents and be coached by some of the best coaches in the business are all very hard temptations to resist for players of such a young age. I’m 17-years-old and I know for a fact that if I was playing for the academy of Celtic, per se, and a team such as Bayern Munich came calling, as much as I adore the team who dawn green and white hoops, it would be tough not to relocate to Bavaria. 

This is a hypothetical situation, but moves similar to this one have happened in reality. However, have they actually worked out? Let’s take a closer look. 

Scottish Teens Making Moves Abroad

Granted it’s still early days but Nathan Patterson hasn’t endured the best time at Everton so far. Injury hasn’t helped the Scottish international although just 45 minutes of competitive first team action in six months is quite concerning regardless. Kerr Smith is another Scottish youngster who elected to move South recently. He did agree to join Aston Villa’s academy as a 17-year-old but prior to this, he was regularly playing for Dundee United’s first team. It is fair to say churning out senior games surmounts playing youth football in most instances. 

Liam Morrison was heavily involved in the Celtic first team set up when he was 16 but the centre back would move to Bayern Munich in the summer of 2019. Morrison’s decision, like all the others we’ve mentioned so far, was understandable when you consider a European powerhouse were calling. But now at 19, he has yet to really make inroads to the Bayern first team despite training with them a few times. Also in recent weeks, the centre back has picked up a knee ligament injury which will keep him out for quite a while. The saying ‘hindsight is a wonderful thing’ is rather applicable in this instance. 

Alongside Morrison, Ben Doak left Celtic at a tender age. Unlike the defender, though, Doak was actually getting minutes for the Hoops’ first team and was thrown in at the deep end on a few occasions such as in a defining match in the 2021/22 Scottish Premiership title race against Dundee United. 

The winger couldn’t refuse when Liverpool were interested, however, and the second youngest player in Celtic’s 134-year history joined the Reds for a fee believed to be in the region of £600,000. One imagines the amount of first team football Doak will see at Anfield will be minimal compared to that if he was at Celtic. With the Glasgow giants, the 16-year-old was already racking up some respectable minutes, which he has yet to do at his new club. 

This then rounds back to the belief that playing senior football and gaining experience should rank of much higher importance to young players than joining the academies of big clubs and going on to stagnate in them. Doing so then stunts their development and prevents them from even improving the Scottish national team. 

Within the realms of these negative cases, though, are some positive ones. 

Take Aaron Hickey, for example. After spending a year in Celtic’s academy as a 15-year-old, Hickey accepted it wasn’t working out for him in Glasgow so decided to move back to Hearts, whom he originally joined the Hoops from, in 2018. Just under a year after doing so, the Scot was handed his first team debut for the Jambos away at Aberdeen at 16. He impressed as much that manager Craig Levein would start him a week later in the last league game of the season against his former club at Celtic Park. 

Hickey was gathering pace by this point and would become the youngest ever player to start a Scottish Cup final in the modern era in the final game of the 2018/19 campaign against you guessed it, Celtic. His side fell to a 2-1 defeat that day but that didn’t stop Hickey from having a breakthrough year the following season. He was a shining light in a dark, dark campaign for Hearts which eventually saw them relegated. That didn’t stop Hickey from having some memorable moments throughout it, though, including a winner in an Edinburgh Derby triumph away at Easter Road, a goal that turned out to be the first senior one in the full back’s career. 

Following this in the summer of 2020, the then 18-year-old would have a whole host of clubs chasing his signature. He took the rather unorthodox path of heading to Italy to join Bologna. In his time in Serie A, it is fair to say Hickey was a roaring success. He made 48 appearances for ‘I Rossoblù’ (the red and blues), scoring five goals and assisting one in the process. Such form earned him his first few senior Scotland caps and this summer, a €22m move to Premier League side Brentford. 

Hickey’s prosperity in Italy now looks to have influenced a few more of his fellow countrymen to take a similar career path. 

In the past few weeks, Josh Doig has left Hibs to join Hellas Verona. Meanwhile, Lewis Ferguson has continued Hickey’s Scottish dynasty at Bologna, departing Aberdeen for the Emilia-Romagna region. The difference between the cases of the likes of Hickey, Doig and Ferguson and those of players like Ben Doak, Liam Morrison and Kerr Smith is the amount of senior football they had played before departing Scotland. 

The trio who left for Serie A had already proved themselves at the professional level and enjoyed several seasons in Scottish football and had therefore disclosed their abilities at a high level, earning them their respective moves. 

However, players such as Doak, Morrison and Smith have departed Scottish football at such a young age that they’ve not really been able to display their abilities at the senior level. This could potentially make it even harder for them to break through and make an impact on the first teams of their new clubs, something they would’ve had serious aspirations of doing when they joined. 

Now that we’ve explored why young Scottish footballers tend to leave their homeland as well as investing ourselves in some positive and negative examples, let’s look into the impacts their departures have on their specific clubs and Scottish football in general. 

What Happens Back Home?

The main effect top prospects have on their clubs after leaving Scotland is a financial one. It is predominantly beneficial, although that seems to depend on the age of the player and how much first team experience they have. 

Rangers raked in around £12m for Nathan Patterson and Aberdeen received a record sale for Calvin Ramsay. When Aaron Hickey left Hearts for Bologna, the Edinburgh club received just £1.5m although a sell-on clause was inserted and the Jambos likely received a respectable share of the €22m Brentford recently paid for the full back. The money teams receive from these deals can then be re-invested back into things like the squad and facilities in order to better the football club as a whole. 

In other cases, clubs have not got top dollar for their best youngsters. 

Highly rated centre back Charlie McArthur left Kilmarnock to join Newcastle this summer with Killie receiving around just £350,000 for the 17-year-old, according to The Athletic. Also in the past few weeks, 16-year-old Rangers goal machine Rory Wilson, who scored a colossal 49 goals at youth level throughout the 2021/22 campaign, made the move to Aston Villa’s academy for around £366,000. 

Although it’s disappointing that teams in Scotland don’t get significant sums of money for their finest youngsters, it’s understandable that clubs aren’t willing to shell out as much on inexperienced players than they are on ones who have already proven themselves at professional level. This is a sad reality of football in general, but it’s also disappointing that fans in the country are not physically able to go and see the best youngsters of the nation ply their trade close to home week in, week out, due to the departures of elite youth talent.

Furthermore, although the money, lure and glamour of the English and other foreign leagues may be simply too much to compete with, this may not be so if measures are taken to prevent departures from happening. 

Looking Abroad for Answers

In recent years, Turkey has been attempting to promote youth and homegrown players in the country. “Our primary target is to transform Turkish football into a better structure that educates and develops elite football players and make Turkey a leading power in Europe and the world,” said the Turkish Football Federation after the announcement of a new rule for the Super Lig, the top flight of football in the country. 

From the 2021/22 season, clubs were only allowed up to 14 foreign players in their squads and field a maximum of eight in the starting eleven. For 2022/23, this will decrease to 12 foreigners permitted in squads and only seven being allowed to play at any given time. Finally in 2023/24, 10 non-Turks will be allowed to be registered with clubs and six allowed to play at a time. 

These rule changes do seem slightly drastic. Yet it cannot be denied they promote homegrown Turkish talent and if something similar was introduced in Scotland, although it would predominantly impact the Old Firm teams, it would allow clubs to focus more on youngsters coming through the ranks and give them more chances of senior football which can only be of benefit to them. 

In Poland, youth is encouraged in the second division by rewarding clubs who give academy players the most minutes with a financial bonus at the end of each season. 

Shifting westwards to Belgium, their Football Association has attempted to eliminate something known as the ‘age bias’. If you’ve never heard of it or don’t know what it is, I’ll expand. 

Traditionally, academy teams are made up of youngsters who are born within a 12-month period and due to this, players who are at opposite ends of the annual will be at different ends of their footballing development, both physically and in terms of skill level. This, in turn, causes the older players in the group to be prioritised and the younger ones to be slightly neglected. To level the playing field, Belgium has implemented youth teams whose players are born within six-month periods. 

This leads to equal treatment of all youngsters and thus meets their specific development needs, causing Belgium to produce better footballers on the whole, something the country probably does more than it should do. For example, Germany has a population of around 83 million compared to Belgium’s 11 million yet it is fair to say the two national teams are almost on par with each other. 

Along with attempting to get rid of the age bias, setting up regional academies is another way of helping to nurture young footballers. 

Across Portugal, Benfica have set up five regional academies where youngsters can continue their development whilst also staying at home and close to their families rather than moving elsewhere near the club they’re playing for and staying in boarding schools. This is surely of benefit to young people as moving away from home at such a tender age comes with various hardships and complications and can even prevent players from doing their best on the pitch. Clearly, Benfica have attempted to reduce this sense of homesickness and having such a focus on youth, which the Lisbon club does, is a long term strategy. 

Scottish Football Looking Forward

Every year, the financial gap between Europe’s top five leagues and the smaller nations increases. However, by putting faith in and developing younger players in order to sell them on for a high value can increase a club or league’s financial strength and eventually help them become one of Europe’s elite, as well as bettering the country’s national team. 

This particular strategy is one Celtic have amply put into practice. Although the majority of these players are not Scottish, in the last four years the Hoops have sold Moussa Dembele, Kieran Tierney, Jeremie Frimpong, Kristoffer Ajer and Odsonne Edouard for a combined fee of £82.8m. 

Their Glasgow counterparts Rangers have even begun to make significant profits from the sales of their prized assets. Since January of this year, the Gers have let go of Nathan Patterson, Joe Aribo and Calvin Bassey for a total of £39.7m having spent only £530,000 to bring the trio in. 

As alluded to, although the majority of players that are leaving Scotland for big money are not Scottish, it proves that the league is one where youngsters can gain invaluable experience, develop their game and eventually earn a significant move elsewhere. One thing that could be beneficial is carrying out this strategy but with homegrown talent, rather than players who have been brought in from other nations. 

Nonetheless, quite a lot has been done just this summer in Scotland to help nourish and develop young footballers in the country. 

Sixteen-year-old right back Josh Dede was involved in Celtic’s B team in 2021/22 and recently signed a new three year deal with the Hoops then just a few weeks after doing so, was handed his first team debut in a 7-0 pre-season victory over Austrian side SC Weiner Viktoria. The young defender was one of a number of Celts who signed professional deals in June of this year with the likes of Kyle Ure, Daniel Cummings and Mitchel Frame among others also putting pen to paper. 

Celtic’s city rivals Rangers have also seemed to heavily invest in their academy this summer. Goalscoring machine Rory Wilson was lost to Aston Villa but the Gers moved quickly to bring in Cameron Cooper from Partick Thistle as his replacement. 16-year-old winger Kieron Wilcox was signed from Inverness along with Scottish midfielder Cameron Bell who joined from Everton. Also coming through the gates at Murray Park this summer is the highly thought of now former Motherwell man Bailey Rice and ex-Millwall forward Zak Lovelace who made his first team debut for the Lions at just 15-years-old.  

Not just Glasgow’s big two, but other teams across Scotland have given positive updates in terms of youth development recently such as Motherwell who gave ten of their academy prospects their first professional deals this summer. 

Particularly under Tam Courts, Dundee United were not afraid to give youngsters a chance with the likes of 17-year-old Miller Thomson and 16-year-old Rory MacLeod each registering a few senior appearances last season. The Arabs are set to compete in European competition in the coming days under Jack Ross and some of their first team regulars are still of a tender age, like Ross Graham and Kieran Freeman, who are 21 and 22-years-old respectively. 

As a result of Celtic, and potentially Rangers’, qualification for the Champions League, their younger sides are guaranteed a place in the UEFA Youth League. This is a competition which runs parallel to the Champions League and allows each team that is in UEFA’s premier club competition to play in a youth version of it with their under-19 teams. The clubs Celtic (and potentially Rangers) play against in this competition are the same as the ones their senior teams draw in the Champions League group stage proper so the Youth League certainly gives the two teams’ youngsters the opportunity to face off against European opposition of a high calibre which can surely only be positive. 

In spite of these good things that are happening among youth football in Scotland, it cannot be denied there is a concerning trend developing among the top young footballers of the country. Several are making moves away from their homeland at young ages and moving to such clubs where one would think they won’t be able to challenge for a place in the first team for at least few years if ever. Yet the lure, money and aura is simply too much to resist for Scotland’s top young prospects and it is sad that we as fans aren’t able to get to watch the next generation of talent in our country week in, week out. 

However, if players choose the right club to develop at, there are some positive cases like Aaron Hickey’s, whom we previously spoke of. 

Moreover, if clubs are able to get top dollar for their youngsters and invest it wisely, there’s nothing to say they cannot help to improve themselves and the Scottish game as a whole. And if this does begin to transpire, it will assuredly help the best prospects of the country stay there, unlike what is currently happening – the reasons for which, examples of, and potential solutions for we’ve thoroughly explored in this article. 

List of sources:

Article on Turkish rule –

YouTube video on strategies other countries have used regarding youth –

Transfer sums according to 

Josh McCafferty

Josh is a 17-year-old passionate football writer and avid Celtic supporter.