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Teenage kicks, Heartbroken

Youngsters leaving Scotland and a dismal week for Hearts feature in this week's North of the Border.


Two young footballers have been in the news this week, with both cases illustrating a depressing trend. It appears that the market for the best young players is becoming increasingly bullish and two Scottish clubs face losing excellent prospects before their supporters have had enough time to purchase a replica jersey with their name on the back, or come up with a decent song about them.

Let's start at Dundee United, where Scott Allan, a 19-year-old midfielder who was on loan at Forfar Athletic for part of last season, has refused to sign a new contract.

Allan has featured in three SPL games for United, the last on August 13. His performances attracted interest from Rangers, Celtic, Manchester United and Newcastle United. It's hard to recall a young player's reputation growing so quickly. Part of the attraction is that Allan has entered the final year of his contract and, while United would be due compensation for his development, the amount would be a pittance in comparison with his potential worth.

United tried to put this right by offering him vastly improved terms in a new contract, but their manager, Peter Houston, claimed his agent demanded that his client earn the same as senior players at Tannadice. Instead of that, he was removed from Houston's first team squad. While the club's frustration is understandable, in this stand-off, a talented player is inactive and United supporters don't get to see one of the best products of their academy.

Back in the day, United was run by Jim McLean, the fierce former manager who took them to the league title in 1983. McLean famously locked his best young players in a coal cupboard and fed them no supper until they agreed to sign 20-year contracts for little more than room and board. Unfortunately, these are different times.


Remember that one of the teams chasing Allan is Celtic? Well, here is the food chain in action. This week they all but gave up on the prospect of Islam Feruz returning to Celtic Park.

Feruz is 16 and has never played a first team game, nor signed a professional contract for Celtic. He was brought to the club when he was 10, and the late Tommy Burns, a former player, manager and latterly a coach at Celtic, played a part in the club's efforts to prevent his family being returned to their native Somalia. After five years of schooling in Scotland, he became eligible to represent his adopted country in international football, and he has done at Under-17 level.

However, this summer, Feruz did not return to Celtic Park. Instead, word reached the club - and everybody else - that he is about to sign a professional contract with Chelsea. As with Scott Allan and Dundee United, the developing club will be due compensation, but that is estimated at around £350,000. Feruz is a red-hot prospect - which is why he has drawn admiring glances from Stamford Bridge - and if he delivers on his potential, his value will eclipse that amount.

Few of those fans have any delusions that they can match the financial power of Chelsea and the rest of the English elite. However, most of them would not have thought, before this summer, that a player could be poached before they had a chance to see him play a single game.

As a footnote, it's worth pointing out that Celtic and Dundee United, the clubs poised to lose their academy graduates for a fraction of their potential worth, will also benefit from a system which allows fluid movement between clubs for young footballers. In a time when the vast majority of Scottish clubs do not spend any money on transfer fees and reduce their wage budgets year on year, it is these kind of deals that represent the real transfer battleground in the SPL.


It is not easy being the manager of Hearts. You have to deal not only with Vladimir Romanov, the most trigger-happy of all owners, but also with a level of expectation that reflects the highest budget outside of Rangers and Celtic.

Paulo Sergio, the manager who replaced Jim Jefferies in the early weeks of this season, has had a bad week. His team were knocked out of the Scottish Communities Cup by Ayr United of the First Division and followed that up with a 2-0 defeat by St Johnstone in the SPL. In between these results, Sergio responded to some light criticism of his team selection for the cup game from, among others, Jimmy Nicholl.

Nicholl won trophies as a right-back for Manchester United and Rangers and, as a manager, led Raith Rovers to victory over Celtic in the League Cup final of 1994, promotion to the SPL and European football. Yet Sergio described his snipers as those who, "aren't used to winning too many times and [who are] making their own publicity to get a better job".


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