LIVINGSTON’S head of youth development looks like he should still be training in one of the club’s academy teams.
Just a few years ago, he was. Neil Hastings, at just 22, is Scotland’s youngest head of youth. He enjoys the rarity of having come through the very system he is now in charge of and is working tirelessly to lure the best players to Almondvale. He reluctantly admits it is a daunting task as kids often choose bigger clubs in Glasgow or Edinburgh, but that does not dampen his endless enthusiasm.
Hastings welcomes the Evening News into his office, adjacent to manager John McGlynn’s. The stadium’s interior corridors and dressing rooms are being decorated and spruced up ahead of the new season. Coincidentally, that’s what much of our chat revolves around – improving standards for developing footballers. This is now Hastings’ life and, despite harbouring ambitions of playing professional football himself, he couldn’t be happier.
His work is highly regarded at a club with a penchant for producing players of the highest calibre. See Robert Snodgrass, Leigh Griffiths and Graham Dorrans, all Scotland internationalists. This year alone, Stefan Scougall and Marc McNulty were sold to Sheffield United for six-figure sums, whilst teenager Coll Donaldson joined English Premier League newcomers Queens Park Rangers. Livingston’s youth programme has a long-standing reputation as one of the best despite their status as a provincial club.
Putting someone in charge who is only marginally older than the emerging players was not Livingston’s intention. Graeme Robertson, now head of youth development at Stenhousemuir, brought Hastings to Livingston as an under-14 player. He progressed through the academy and was handed a full-time playing contract as a 17-year-old centre-back. The deal wasn’t renewed under former manager Gary Bollan and Hastings began helping out at Livingston’s community coaching sessions. Brian Welsh, head of youth at the time, then asked him to coach the club’s under-13 side. He made the most of the opportunity.
When Welsh left for America in 2012, Richie Burke took his place in charge of Livingston’s youth development but was then promoted to manager in March 2013. That left no-one in charge of the youths and Hastings was asked to step in by the board.
“There was no-one ready or who had the children’s licence to fill the gap. I would do anything to try and help this club,” he explains. “It’s a club I’ve seen go from a good period of time to rock bottom a few years ago when we went into administration. I believe Livingston is on the rise again and I’d do anything to help get them back to where they should be and where I know they can be. I went and did the necessary coaching courses and took the role that I’m in just now.
“It’s strange because I’ve got a little experience of playing which I can try to pass on to the younger ones. Other coaches maybe have a bigger knowledge and more playing experience than me but I enjoy my work. I look forward to each day. When I go home, I plan out the sessions we’re going to deliver in advance. It’s what you make it and you need to give it everything you’ve got. We have a good group of staff here. John McGlynn is a good manager who knows the league well and he’s been in my shoes. He worked with youths at Hearts so I ask him things and he guides me along a bit on a daily basis.”
The philosophy Hastings follows belies his own youthfulness and is one many Scottish clubs could learn from. Livingston see long-term potential in every kid they sign at under-13 level, otherwise they won’t take them on. “My aim is to develop players who are currently in our system, players we’ve identified and recruited. I believe they have a chance to break into the first team. Some of them are young full-time players or players in our under-17 squad. Others are as young as under-13s, or even in our under-12 and under-11 training groups.
“I look through the youths on a weekly basis, right down to the under-13s, 12s and 11s. I talk to Shaun Scobie, our youth coach who delivers a lot of sessions with me, and say, ‘he could be playing in this role or that role for the first team in a few years’ time’. It’s exciting looking down the line like that. I think these boys can help the club in a playing sense. They could also be sold on because, no doubt about it, we are a selling club.”
Convincing boys and parents that Livingston can serve them best as they develop is one of Hastings’ biggest challenges. Rangers, Celtic, Hearts and Hibs are all within travelling distance of West Lothian and can offer better facilities. “There’s no way to hide it. Sometimes you’re fighting against a brick wall,” he shrugs. “These clubs are quite close and you’re fighting against them. Boys see a bigger club or a club who, until recently anyway, were in a higher league and automatically want to go there. They can afford to pay full-time boys more money because they have a bigger fanbase etc, so it’s hard.
“With the younger kids it’s difficult as well. We’re playing in the initiative tier of the Club Academy Scotland programme, whereas those other clubs play in the performance tier, which is a higher level. It’s difficult to attract players but we always stress to them that if they come along here, listen, learn and improve, then we will give them that platform to go and show what they can do. We have great examples of boys who have done that here and we can show the kids that.”
Most children who join Livingston at under-13 level generally stay for several years until they are ready to challenge for full-time contracts. “If you look at our youth system, we don’t really have a big turnaround of players at the end of each season until we reach under-15s to under-17s. By then you’re looking at boys who can come in full-time,” says Hastings. “Firstly we give young kids the view that we’re going to have them for a few years and we aren’t looking at them as short-term projects. We reiterate to them that, no matter their size or weight or anything, we don’t treat them any differently.
“We stress they will have fun and improve as players. We will develop as many parts of their game as we can, both technically and tactically. If they are good enough and they improve and they get a chance to join the club full-time. Our first-team squad is very young and we have evidence of players, like little Stefan Scougall, who has had that platform and then got a move because of it.”
As any youth coach knows, managing parents can sometimes be more awkward than dealing with their children. “It’s a kid’s dream to play football but sometimes parents will try to live their dream through their kid because they haven’t made it in professional football. It becomes difficult,” says Hastings. “As a club, I think we tend to deal with parents quite well. As long as they realise they’re bringing their kids here and we have the expertise in the football field. As long as they let us get on with that, it’s fine. Sometimes it doesn’t go as smoothly as that and you need to part ways. That’s part of football.”
Hastings brims with pride when asked about the next generation Livingston are rearing on their astroturf behind Almondvale. The training pitch is also undergoing a makeover this summer with a new state-of-the-art surface being laid.
“We have a couple of full-time boys going into their second year, like Shaun Rutherford, Ryan Currie and Darren Moffat. Those three have a chance. Shaun Rutherford is a left-back or centre-back who was on the bench a few times towards the end of last season. He’s never scared to get on the ball, he’s got a good range of passing and reads the game well.
“Ryan Currie is a midfielder who likes to get on the ball and drive at people, commit defenders and get on the scoresheet. He finished last season with a wee broken bone in his foot so he might take a little bit longer to get going again in pre-season. We also have high hopes for Darren as he’s impressed us over a period of time.
“Five players are coming in full-time from the under-17s. We beat off other clubs to get them in here. Jack Cook, Gabriel Auriemma, Cammy Fraser, Ross King [younger brother of Hearts winger Billy] and Sam Birch. What we say to them is that we now need that attitude to go and take yourself to the next level. This is when it counts. We might see them towards the end of this season coming, but probably by the following year those five could break through at any time. They all have great ability and a chance to go far.”
The plans are clear: Livingston intend their youth academy to thrive in the months and years ahead. It could be argued they are benefiting from the youthful energy of the man in charge. His ambitions are also set high.
“My personal long-term aim is to improve my coaching knowledge, learn from the manager and coaches here and gain more experience. One day, I want to become a manager myself at a club somewhere on a full-time basis.”