Youth academy influence on St Johnstone first team thrills Alistair Stevenson

Every football fan wants to see local talent rise through the ranks and proudly don the first team jersey. Alistair Stevenson is no different.

But the director of St Johnstone’s youth academy realized that for many years the club’s success with an experienced team made that next to impossible.

The Saints were a team with strong foundations and proud leaders including Dave Mackay, Frazer Wright, Steven Anderson, Chris Millar and Steven MacLean. The list goes on.

The “old guard” has served their manager Tommy Wright with great distinction and played a pivotal role in continually challenging the odds of achieving greatness at McDiarmid Park.

The top six, qualifying for European competition and that famous Scottish Cup day in May – those were the best times for the Perth side.

“It was frustrating for me to see a very experienced team,” smiles Stevenson, an unsung hero.

“I knew deep down, ‘Why on earth would you want to change a team that was aiming for Europe and the Cup, just to give a young player a game?’

“The fans wanted to win the cup, the fans wanted to be in Europe and the fans also wanted to see a young player enter the team.

“But they didn’t want to see a young player come in at the expense of the team. I knew Tommy was right from the start.

Much like Wright’s seven-year reign, all good things come to an end. And that was the case with the old guard of the Saints.

Mackay ended his playing career in 2016, fellow defender Wright left the year before, while Millar, MacLean and goalkeeper Alan Mannus all left in the heartbreaking summer of 2018.

The group had been separated and, for Perth boss Wright, the time was nigh for a courageous passage to youth. This resulted in a dramatic drop in the age of the team.

And of all of his successes, what he achieved with a team that was heavily elevated to the academy in the last few months of his tenure had enough evidence to be the greatest of all.

In the last league game before the coronavirus lockdown, a 1-0 home win over Livingston on March 7, no less than six players who had been involved in the Saints’ academy were listed on the roster.

“It was a huge decision to move on to people like Steven Anderson, Frazer Wright and Dave Mackay,” Stevenson told PA.

“But the young players who came in, I think we would all agree that they are pretty good.

“Going from the bottom of the league to the challenge for the top six, with the young players, was probably one of his biggest accomplishments.

“It’s a good thing to be able to point out to parents. On average, each week the first team played with six academy players.

“You had players like Zander Clark, Stevie May, Chris Kane, Jason Kerr and Ali McCann. They played a role almost every week.

“David Wotherspoon had also attended the academy before going to Celtic and then to Hibs with me. He also had a very holy spirit.

“There is a football observatory group that took the minutes played during the season for players under 21.

“In Scotland, Hearts gave young players under the age of 21 the greatest percentage of time on the pitch. But St Johnstone is second.

“I’m going to try to get it out for my coaches and my young players. It will be great for them to see that there is a way.

The cessation of coronavirus football comes at a frustrating time for Stevenson and his youth academy, given the great strides that are being made. But Perth fans are urged not to worry.

Other talents are bubbling beneath the surface, all now with greater confidence after watching the exploits of the current first team.

“It was great for us at the academy to see young players having a chance,” Stevenson continued.

“Tommy also had Jordan Northcott, Sam Denham, Olly Hamilton and John Robertson on the team and in practice.

“But we have more coming and we are also getting some international recognition for the boys. We have five next year in performing arts schools.

“We have clubs that try to pinch us the players, but we keep them. In addition to raising players ourselves, we get a good percentage coming from the bigger clubs.

“If it gets really competitive for places, we also have a good exit strategy. The clubs now see us as a solid breeding ground for young players.

“Okay they might not get a contract at St Johnstone but we can offer them to some of the other clubs so that they are still in the game.

“It’s a big argument right now in football with finances – people say the younger academies will be the first to go.

“But if you don’t have the academy, you don’t get your little stars. You will still get rebound players when they are in their twenties.

“But you’ll never get your Ali McCanns or Jason Kerrs unless you have them to start with.”

Stevenson was as sad as anyone when news of Wright’s departure leaked last week.

But the Northern Irishman’s impact, particularly in youth football at club Perth, has the potential to be decisive when the search for further success resumes.

“Tommy Wright left us in a great position with what he did,” Stevenson said.

“Tommy was great to me. If I had something that I felt was a problem, a concern, or something that I wanted to change, I would walk in and talk to him.

“He has always been very supportive, helpful and encouraging. If there was anything that was not what he expected, he would also be very quick to let you know.

“We would always discuss things and come out with a positive end result. I respected him a lot and I always trusted his judgment.

“We’re both pretty open in what we say. We say what we feel and then try to build on it.

“His accomplishments are second to none with any other manager. He consistently managed to achieve success at the park and kept his core of experienced players for a long time.

“They obviously stayed because they had the greatest respect for him. He was able to bring one or two to strengthen his already successful team.

“He kept the club at a high level, finishing in the top six, qualifying for Europe and winning the cup. It doesn’t get better than that.

“It’s a sign of an experienced top manager, of having someone who makes players want to come to a club and stay there.”

St Johnstone Youth Academy, for now, must adapt to the coronavirus situation.

Teams of all age groups cannot train together as football and sport at large are joining forces to stop the spread of the pandemic.

But stars of the future continue to develop their skills from the safety of their homes.

Stevenson said, “By the minute coaches give out homework and assignments.

“There is video analysis of the games and we let the players access it.

“The players worked in their gardens, filming it and sending it off. There is ample evidence of the work in progress.

“I’m going to talk to the club about collecting certain items and getting them out there so fans can see them.

“We want to give the fans more information so that maybe they can start putting faces to the names.

“And we’re always looking to have more coaches as well as more players and that’s something we’re going to be actively doing.

“We have a very good group of coaches, which is essential. And we have good people recruiting and looking for players.