Gordon Smith: It’s time for Scottish teams to give kids a chance

Harry Cochrane has impressed for Hearts this season (SNS Group / Paul Devlin)

THE re-introduction of the play-offs has, by and large, been a good thing in my opinion.

It keeps the season going right to the end, and certainly has introduced an extra layer of excitement for fans and TV audiences alike.

However, I do have one gripe with it.

That’s because I am convinced the play-offs are making it harder for good, young Scottish kids to break through.

If we take the Premiership as an example, seven of the 12 clubs are still involved in major games as the curtain comes down.

It is only Celtic, St Johnstone, Kilmarnock, Hearts and Motherwell who could be said to have had the pressure off, and the last named are preparing for the Scottish Cup Final.

For the rest, the heat remained on going into the final weekend of the league season, making it difficult for managers to blood kids in a way that was the norm when I was coming through.

Back then, we had an 18-team top flight with only two clubs relegated.

So the final few weeks would see promising players introduced the length and breadth of the country.

The fans enjoyed a glimpse of the future, and the kids concerned got experience which would stand them in good stead when the time came to step up.

Things change and the popularity of the play-offs is such they are likely to be around for the foreseeable future.

That being the case, though, I think there is a good case to consider another return – that of reserve-team football.

I know this form of the game had its critics, but I remain convinced it had a valuable role in blooding kids into the world of men’s football.

With clubs using the games as a vehicle to ease first-team players back into action after injury, they would have a chance to see the standard required in a match scenario.

True, it might not have been nearly as competitive an environment as they would experience in the first team. That was a common criticism of reserve football.

But it did approximate the physical test you would face against adult players.

I made the breakthrough myself as a 16-year-old with Kilmarnock and loved every minute of it.

So much so that I can tell you that absolutely the first question I would have asked any club who came in for me was: ‘Will I get a game?’.

That is my worry for the top young prospects at Aberdeen, Celtic, Hibs, Rangers and the rest.

Hearts manager Craig Levein had a go at his Celtic counterpart Brendan Rodgers for bringing in young, inexperienced players on loan, rather than blooding his own.

He did so from a position of strength, having brought 16-year-olds Harry Cochrane and Anthony McDonald through this season.

Cochrane, in particular, has been a real find.

Levein has spoken of his certainty that he will go on to become a Scotland international in the future, and on the basis of what we have seen so far, I would not be arguing with him.

He looks excellent and was a stand-out in Hearts’ win in the Edinburgh derby in midweek.

John McGinn got a close-up view of the teenager’s skills and ended the night on the losing side.

I wouldn’t hold that against him, though, as the Hibs midfielder is an excellent example of what I am speaking about.

St Mirren gave him his break. John was just 18 when he starred in their League Cup Final win over Hearts.

Five years on, and he is being talked of as a £5 million transfer target for Rangers new manager Steven Gerrard.

That is lot of money for any Scottish club to outlay, and I am not sure we will see it happen, especially as the midfielder has plenty of admirers south of the border.

If it does, though, I think he would be a great buy for them.

Rangers need a controlling central midfielder and he could do it for them.

He has everything – power, strength and mobility, plus he can deliver goals.

These are the type of players Scotland can produce.

But no one, no matter how good they are, can break through without the opportunity to do so.

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