AFTER spending eight and a half years overseeing the development of the next generation at Firhill, Scott Allison is taking the next step in his coaching career. But the former director of the Thistle Weir Youth Academy is convinced the future is in good hands at Maryhill.
Allison’s time at the Glasgow club has been eventful to say the least. From promotion to the Premiership, a forced demotion to third level and working under three different managers – not to mention the investment of Colin Weir, the late Euromillions winner who pumped money into the academy of the club – it was a roller coaster ride with the club.
With Allison dotting the east and crossing the ts on an exciting new opportunity beyond these shores, he reflected on his work with the Jags. And with a youth-level path to the first team now established – something he considers to be the biggest challenge facing the Scottish academies – he has every right to go back on his efforts and feel a sense of pride.
“I had been at Thistle for eight and a half years, but after all this time I felt the academy was in a good position,” he explained. “So when this opportunity presented itself, I’m at a stage where I’m ambitious and I want to see if my methods work in different cultures and learn in a new environment.
“I just felt the time had come to hand over the reins to the guys who are there. There are a lot of good players on the cusp of qualifying so hopefully we’ll see a few more come out and join the first team.
“We started when Alan Archibald was manager. We had just been promoted to Premiership and the plan at the time was to have an academy structure that would match our new status, and we did. Then when the first team was relegated there were a number of players – and this is well documented – like Kevin Nisbet who had succeeded at the time and started to decline. The reserve team was reduced and we ended up with a gap.
“However, it has more to do with Scottish football – Project Brave had arrived, so it was just under-18 football and first-team football. I always have the impression that there is a big leap for a lot of children. Over the past two seasons, I’ve been trying to bridge that gap.
“Ian McCall was of a different class when he arrived and we worked very closely to make sure there was a unity and an approach where young players would be exposed to the first team’s environment. they were pretty good. We did this last year under difficult circumstances with containment.
“The current squad below, the Under-17s and Under-18s – I know Ian thinks very highly of a lot of them. This is something we’ve been working really hard on over the past few seasons. : forging this link between the academy and the first team.
It’s a path that hasn’t always been very busy in Glasgow’s West End, but Allison believes that has changed in recent years. Local players like Aidan Fitzpatrick and Liam Lindsay reported high fees when clubs from the south came to call while others like James Penrice became important members of the first team. Allison insists that Weir’s investment cannot be overlooked.
“In October 2013, Colin came to financially support the academy and that transformed everything,” he recalls. “We had teams from under 11 to under 17 and that led to the full time under 20 team – the one with Liam Lindsay and Jack Hendry – so we were able to build that path at the community level. until the end. through.
“Colin was really excited – his aspirations weren’t to develop players for Thistle’s first team; he just wanted young children to have a chance through football. We had a huge basic program and we created so many opportunities for thousands of children, no matter what their ability or age. There have been a lot of trips abroad, a lot of good tournament experiences. It really helped us build the whole structure.
“The benefit of Colin’s investment is yet to come in terms of the end product as these players are now in the system. It’s a shame Colin couldn’t see it because I know how excited he was about it, but his investment has totally transformed everything we do.
Weir’s financial backing was a game-changer for the championship club’s academy, but Allison insists that McCall – famous for his handling of men and his confidence in young players – also deserves his fair share of credit after quitting. ‘a number of young people have taken the plunge. to the senior squad and have made their professional debut since the manager returned to Firhill two years ago.
“The manager is great,” he says. “On a personal level, I had a great experience and saw three different management styles. Alan Archibald was new to the job and did well in the Premiership, and it was disappointing when he left.
“When Gary Caldwell arrived there was a lot of commotion around the place. He had a tough job. Then when Gary left Ian came in and I think he had the hardest job of the lot. There was so much to deal with and I think he does a fantastic job.
“Ian was from a different class to me because he showed real interest. He would come to games, always show interest, and come to my office to ask how the players were doing. He got to know the names of the players and their families – he just showed real interest.
“Once he gets to see the picture he knows which players he can trust now and that’s why you see boys at 16 making their debuts and getting involved in the first team squads.
“He’s a very good judge of a player: it shows in his recruitment. What stood out to me was that he was asking for four or five names to join training and I would recommend some players that I thought could step up, and he would come back and say he was okay with it. .
“Everything he said was what we’ve been saying for a number of years, so he definitely has an eye for a player. Then when the players come in, he has this ability to connect with them and take care of them.
“He knows who’s in need of support, who’s in need of a little challenge because he’s done his research. He’s been a breath of fresh air for the club and I think Thistle is in good hands as long as Ian McCall is around.
The self-sustaining nature of the Jags youth organization is another point of pride for Allison.
“When we started the academy, we looked at three things: our primary goal was to develop players for the Partick Thistle first team; we wanted to develop players to represent Scotland at different levels; and we also wanted to develop players who could get a financial return for the club, ”explained Allison.
“Liam Lindsay was part of the youth system before Colin Weir’s investment, but the transfer fee was structured so that there was a bribe for the club and a small contribution to the academy young people. Aidan [Fitzpatrick] went for around £ 350,000. So there were good financial returns.
“We wanted to develop an autonomous academy, so the fees we contributed helped us build a sustainable structure. The club didn’t need to invest in the academy model, so that was a real plus.
The likes of Fitzpatrick and Lindsay represent success stories for Thistle Weir Youth Academy, but there are also one or two that didn’t have a chance on the first team before blossoming elsewhere. Scotland internationalist Nisbet is the obvious example, but there are others – like Dylan Tait, recently signed by Hibs, and Kyle Turner, now returning to the club as a first-team player – who also slipped through the net.
“Kyle was unhappy because he was in the system when we were in the Premiership,” Allison recalls. “We recommended him to go full time, but there were already too many midfielders in the first team. Kyle left and played with men from a young age and has now come back as an asset to the first team.
“Dylan was another and it was exactly the same: there were too many full-time players in front of him. He was a talented midfielder for us, but there was no room for contracts when he moved from the Under-17s to the first team. He’s doing very well too.
“Back when we were in the Premiership there were a lot of full-time players, but now we have a smaller squad and I think the model is better. With a smaller first-team squad, there is a better path for young players to step in and train, bench, make their debut and become long-term starters for the club. In the past, boys never had that chance.
Allison continued, “The strategy now is for these players to be on loan and the age group below that – I think they’re good enough and the manager thinks they’re good enough to go to the bench sometimes. The win-win situation we have created this year is that the older ones play on loan and the younger ones get the experience of being around the first team.
“James Penrice was one of those who really took advantage of the loan. He went to East Fife and then to Livingston and played over 100 games for us when he was 21. Wee Fitzy was not loaned out, but he came and played 30 games in the league.
“Young players need to have games against men: that’s the biggest challenge. Banzo [Stuart Bannigan] It was also great for all the young players. This is a great example for all the boys – it shows that there is a way to Thistle if you want to stay there for the long haul.
Allison takes a short break before stepping under the desk at her new job and putting the time to good use by visiting clubs across the UK, collecting advice and seeing how some of the best youth teams perform. funded. And the good news for Thistle fans is that much of what he’s seen is quite familiar, on the whole.
He added: “Before taking on my next challenge, I take some time to reconnect with friends and travel around the UK, seeing a lot of different club structures. It’s reassuring because I’ve been to a few clubs and a lot of what I’ve seen is similar to what we do at Thistle. It gives me confidence that there are a lot of good things being done.