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Fears top clubs are running scared of letting best young talent go out on loan: Alloa supremo Mike Mulraney hits out

© SNSMike Mulraney was delighted to be able to tempt Peter Grant to take up the reins at Alloa
Mike Mulraney was delighted to be able to tempt Peter Grant to take up the reins at Alloa

Come late January, it is not unusual to find people scrambling about for a wee loan to tide them over.

The fact that in this case the borrower is a self-made wealthy businessman, merely underlines the great levelling power of football.

Alloa face a battle to stay in the Scottish Championship and Mike Mulraney, the Wasps’ nothing-if-not-down-to-earth chairman, would love to deliver a couple of new faces to manager Peter Grant.

Sunderland have let their young Scottish striker Lee Connelly come north, joining Robbie Deas who was brought in from Celtic at the start of the season, but he wants more.

There is not much money to play with, but that’s OK. The Clackmannanshire club have done very nicely on next to nothing on numerous occasions.

Eighteen months before Scott McKenna skippered Scotland against Mexico in the Azteca Stadium – aged just 21 – he represented Alloa at Stark’s Park and Palmerston.

“It was brilliant to see, a great moment not just for Scott, but for everyone who had a part in his development,” said Mulraney, who also serves as SFA vice president.

“However, possibly even more pleasing for us was the fact Scott Bain played in that game in the Azteca, too.

“That’s because while we had Scott McKenna on loan from Aberdeen, the other Scott was actually our player for three years.

“He had been released – coincidentally by Aberdeen – and we were able to help him get back into playing again and, eventually, back to the top of the game.

“So, aye, our record helping to develop talent isn’t half bad.

“In addition to the two Scotts, we have also had Liam Lindsay, Stevie May, Jake Hastie and Dario Zanatta. That lot have certainly done pretty well between them.

“They were all good when we got them. But I’d like to think we helped them all become a bit better through their introduction to the level.

“The wonderful thing is that all I, and the rest of the board, have to do is make the figures add up. The manager identifies the player and does most of the negotiations.

“Sometimes I give the managers a little bit of help in the process. But they are always the ones who do the due diligence on the players.

“That is the important bit because there are an awful lot of footballers out there. It’s spotting the good ones – and getting to them before anyone else does – that is the trick.

“If it is loans, we also have to persuade their clubs to let them come to us.”

Former Alloa loanee Scott McKenna has captained Scotland in the Azteca

The last point is significant. Mulraney fears Scotland’s top clubs run scared of putting out their brightest young talents.

“The ones they put out to ourselves and others in the lower leagues tend to be the ones just below the very best,” he said.

“We try for those ones and, although they aren’t getting a game for their clubs, we get told they are not available. That has happened on a few occasions.

“The reckoning is they should keep them available in case they get hit by a run of injuries, or if the manager wants to try something different.

“People will say that’s fair enough, they pay the wages. Unfortunately, it means a lot of these kids end up being effectively held back – especially in comparison to those who are allowed to go.

“As a country we can’t afford to have that happen. For the good of the national team, the best prospects need to be developing and that won’t happen if they don’t get to play.

“I am biased. But I really do believe the players who come to us get a double benefit.

“They get first-team football at a high level with games in the Scottish Championship and, because we are part-time, they also get to carry on training with their clubs.

“But how do we persuade their employers to let them go? There are probably about seven different ways you can try it and all of them have their supporters.

“You have to be careful because sometimes rule changes made with the best of intentions don’t work out.

“In the worst cases they can actually exacerbate the problem you are trying to deal with.

“There was a while when clubs were incentivised to get kids stripped on match days.

“What ended up happening was they were placed on the bench and left unused, week after week.

“So the end result was that didn’t get match-time. Worse, they blocked spaces for players who would previously have been involved.

“But, for me, the bottom line is always that if other countries find a way to do something successfully – and they do – then there will be models for us to follow.

“It is not going to happen unless all parties – the club doing the loaning, the team getting the loan and the player himself – are happy.

“Personally, I think for that to happen you need flexibility on all sides. How best to do it is a topic for debate. But it is a debate we should definitely have.”

The lower leagues are not only a breeding ground for players.

Mulraney is proud Alloa are a club with a track record of losing managers to bigger clubs.

“I went to the St Mirren v Hibs match a couple of months back and I was laughing because I genuinely didn’t know who to support,” he said.

“Jim Goodwin was in charge of Saints and Jack Ross was the visiting Hibs boss. There are two of our lads right there.

“I actually think Jack’s example probably helped sell us to Jim, because of the way he had stepped up to St Mirren and then, of course, kicked on to Sunderland and Hibs.

“If you looked at it, Jim was probably taking a wee bit of gamble coming to us. But it worked out really well for both parties.

“He is a guy who was born to be a manager. He did an amazing job to keep us in the Championship last season.

“In addition to Jim and Jack we have had a few other good ones. I am talking about the likes of Paul Hartley, Danny Lennon and Barry Smith.

“Not everything you try works out in football. But we like to try to do something a bit different when we get the chance.”

The selection of Peter Grant, their current boss, certainly qualified as that.

Where before they had looked to pick young coaches who they believed could go on and develop, in his case they pulled off a shock by landing one of the best-known characters in the Scottish game.

“Peter has managed in the English Premier League and has been the Scotland No. 2 to Alex McLeish, so we were thrilled to get him,” said Mulraney.

“His knowledge of the game is amazing. I don’t think there is anything about the game of football that I could teach Peter Grant.

“I doubt anyone saw him coming to a smaller club such as ourselves. But he was exactly what we are after.

“You looked around the league at the likes of Arbroath and I just thought, what we needed most was experience. We had a very long chat with Peter and, happily, we were able to persuade him to come and join us.”

The former Celtic midfielder still has his work cut out to keep Alloa in the division. There will be some hard weeks and months ahead.

The signs are there. When the Wasps beat Dunfermline 3-1 at East End Park last month, Grant described it as the finest moment of his managerial career.

“We have significant challenges ahead,” said Mulraney. “But that’s OK, this is football – we’ve all got them pretty much all of the time!”