SNOW, sleet, biting winds and freezing temperatures make the wide open pitches of Riccarton a place best avoided right now. Unless you happen to be Ricky Sbragia, Scotland’s Under-19 coach.
He is braving inclement weather to scout players for the forthcoming European Under-19 Championship Elite Round and is eyeing several young Hearts protégés. Amongst them are Dale Carrick, Jack Hamilton, plus Billy and Adam King.
Wrapped up with scarf and hooded overcoat, Sbragia was an interested spectator on Monday afternoon as Hearts Under-20s beat their Ross County counterparts 2-0. Carrick scored the opening goal, goalkeeper Hamilton kept a clean sheet, Adam King was an important midfield cog whilst his brother Billy offered a constant threat on both flanks. Through the icy sleet, Sbragia was also monitoring 16-year-old defender Jordan McGhee and 17-year-old midfielder Angus Beith for the Scotland Under-17 squad. The latter only managed to face Ross County because he is on Easter holidays from his school, Boroughmuir. McGhee is nearing the end of his first year on a professional contract.
The progress of Jason Holt, Jamie Walker and others from youth team to first team this season has led to Hearts literally plucking some younger academy kids from classrooms and throwing them into age levels above their own. It is accelerating their development, as Sbragia and SFA coaches have noted.
Carrick, Hamilton and the King brothers are serious contenders for the 18-man squad Sbragia must submit to UEFA by 11am on May 23. Scotland’s first Under-19 Elite Round match is against Belgium the following day, with Georgia and England to come in the following five days. Only the group winners will join hosts Lithuania in the final tournament, starting July 20 this year. It could potentially be a busy summer for some of Hearts’ most prodigious youngsters.
“If they keep form, they will have a chance,” said Sbragia, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “Billy King has been in with us and did really well. He went to Holland last month and did extremely well against Sweden last week in the friendly. We’re really pleased with him. We’ve brought Adam in for a training camp so it’s really just about getting around to see what I’ve got and what could come in and improve us.
“I know most of the players at Hearts. We have Jack Hamilton and Dale Carrick, plus the two Kings. I’m looking in general between all the age groups to see how the players are doing, how they’re performing and if they’re up to speed. You look to see who is having a purple patch so I try to take in as many games as I can.
“In general I just try to watch as many youth games as I can, just checking up on what I’ve got in the squad and what’s coming through. Especially with younger ones like Jordan McGhee, who plays for Scotland at under-17 level. I just like to check and see where they are.
“Hearts are producing a lot of good young players and we have some of them in all the Scotland squads. I watch the under-20 games to check and see how they’re doing. I look to see if they’re on form, that’s the big thing. I spoke to John Murray and Gary Locke at Riccarton on Monday, so it’s just getting an update on how everyone is doing.
“Scotland Under-19s play Serbia in a friendly on April 9, so we’ll meet up two days beforehand. We are going to change it a little bit after the game against Sweden last week, which went well for us. It’s about giving players experience at international level. We have the Elite Round in May and I have a squad of about 25 or 26 but I can only pick 18 for those games. That’s my biggest dilemma. Of all the issues being a manager or coach, that is one of the biggest ones because I can only take 18 into this stage of the competition. I’m not looking forward to telling people they won’t be involved.”
Sbragia’s playing career was spent in England before coaching posts at Manchester United, Bolton Wanderers and Sunderland, whom he briefly managed during the 2008/09 season. Now he operates with less of a profile but possibly more satisfaction. Scottish clubs are promoting academy players to first-team level due to tight finances, which can only help the country’s youth coaches.
“I think we all benefit from it,” said the Glaswegian. “The clubs and the players benefit from it, and from my point of view the boys are getting football. Previously, they might not have been getting the same exposure but now they are getting first-team games. I think the clubs are doing really well playing them. It develops them quicker and that’s the good thing about it. Young players need to play football to develop. They can train all the time, but they need match experience and many of them are getting that.
“Obviously the financial state of Scottish clubs helps young players get into the first-team, but it’s excellent to see. The group I have – boys born in 1994 and 1995 – is a good group of football players. Of the team that played Sweden last week, five or six were playing at first-team level for their clubs. That’s good experience and it means the step-up to internationals is not as big for those players.”
Sbragia is likely to visit Riccarton regularly between now and the end of the season. His attendance is certainly welcomed. “I’m going through my Pro Licence with Ricky at the moment and he’s been to a couple of our games recently,” said Darren Murray, the Hearts Under-20 coach. “I think he likes the way we play, he likes the players and I know there are a number of them he’s watching for Scotland Under-19s.
“We have Angus Beith, who is still a schoolboy, playing in our under-20 squad. We also have Jordan McGhee at 16 playing in the under-20s. I tend to forget these boys are actually under-17s. We have a number of players involved with Scotland Under-21s, then there’s a few with the Scotland Under-19s. I think we’re doing things right at our academy in terms of getting players through and helping them achieve international honours. We’re hopeful for a number of them.
“Finance does come into it, however we’ve never had young players not making the first team who were good enough to play there. If you’re good enough, you will get into the first team at Hearts. For boys like Angus Beith and Jordan McGhee, they must be thinking to themselves, ‘I’m playing under-20s, the only other team after this is the first team’. They will be thinking, ‘there’s only one more step to go’, so I think that pushes them on. If you are a young player with talent who wants to play first-team football, I think Hearts is the ideal place to be.”