Malky Mackay and John Rankin are spot on about the lazy culture of young Scottish football players – and I wish it hadn’t taken me 11 years to realise that.
If you know me then you’ll have heard me, at some point, talk about playing at a decent level when I was younger. To those of you who don’t, forgive me for the quick trip down memory lane to give this piece context.
It was nothing special. I had a good few years in the Falkirk academy before leaving a couple of months into being a full-time Under 19s player. After that I was at Dundee United, played around 10 games for Stirling Albion’s first team and represented the Scotland schoolboys. That’s it.
It’s something I’m proud of – no doubt about that. But I definitely look back regularly on it and think: what if?
What if I worked harder to improve myself?
What if I didn’t take everything critical coaches said to me as some sort of personal attack?
What if I realised how hard it is in the real world?
What if I had worked a lot harder to improve my game? That’s something I’ll never really understand given my approach to working life now. Almost every minute of my day is spent thinking about how we grow as a business. How we improve our reputation. How we produce more comprehensive sports coverage. How we drive traffic. There are so many things to consider. Applied to football, those sort of questions didn’t enter my brain – particularly when I earned the chance to go full-time with Falkirk.
I’d got by in the club’s youth academy purely on ability. That’s not me saying I was the best player. Far from it. But ability alone is more often than not enough to get you that full-time deal. It’s only when you become a professional that you realise how much more goes into being a football player at the top level.
Scott Arfield was the best example of someone who grasped that when he needed to. Before he was winning promotions with Burnley, playing against some of England’s best players and representing Canada internationally, he’d work like he was already at that level. I remember one of my first weeks in pre-season training and seeing him stay behind after a session to do repetitive shooting drills with the Under 19s goalie Mikey Andrews. He’d stand at the edge of the box and get Mikey to throw the ball at him over and over again so he could work on his one-touch and finish. That was him working on something he no doubt thought was a weakness. I’d grown up a few years below his level seeing him play full-back or wing-back because he was so fit. He just wouldn’t stop and that was no accident. The fact he became a player capable of playing anywhere across midfield shows how the work he did to improve his game paid off. And he didn’t need to do it. There he was doing extra when already an established first team player.
It might sound silly, but that’s just something I didn’t realise I had to be doing. I can’t explain why. I’m only 27 and for years have been hearing stories of top players like Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo doing the extra work in training to make it pay off on the pitch. Yet, when I was 17/18, I was off up the road by the time training finished at 2pm.
Eddie May was our Under 19s manager at Falkirk and I remember him deliberately giving us a day off during the week within the first two months of being full-time. He wanted to see what we’d do – and, unsurprisingly, we all took it off. Not one of us travelled in for extra sessions. I was probably playing the PlayStation or binging on Entourage. At the time I didn’t think this, but, looking back, he was correct to criticise our attitude.
Now I realise that life only gets harder from those days running around Stirling University. Going to the gym seemed like the biggest inconvenience when all I wanted to do was play football. Drinking protein shakes was fine as long as I could get some Irn-Bru on the train journey home. What I’d give now to be spending hours of my day getting fitter in the gym and being paid for it. Every time I work some ridiculous shift I think back to those 2pm finishes and wonder why I didn’t continue working until 4pm or 5pm, putting in that extra work necessary to get better.
With a national team struggling in a qualification campaign geared towards ending a 20-year wait for a major tournament appearance, it’s easy to say there’s no talent in the country. I don’t agree with that. But, as Mackay and Rankin say, too much of that talent is being wasted at a pivotal moment by a lazy attitude.
Rankin finished his rant with a point about the better players bullying others into not doing more and that’s arguably the saddest of all. I remember being one of those guys at the back of the pack during pre-season running and telling my fitter team-mates to slow down because it would make me and a few others look bad. I didn’t need anyone else to make me look bad, saying that was enough.
There’s nothing wrong with a 9-5 job, but young players need to think about what they’ll be doing after football the next time they skip the gym or go home at lunchtime. If they don’t, they’ll realise when it’s too late.