Irn-Bru gets you through, so the slogan goes. Scotland’s other national drink markets itself as a comforting refreshment, but it may also help push talented teenagers forward into the cut-throat world of senior football.
The revamped Scottish Challenge Cup, sponsored by Irn-Bru, is already a rousing success for the Premiership under-20 teams invited to take part for the first time this season. Most have been eliminated in the first two rounds but the benefits of competitive football in their development cannot be overstated.
Hearts coach Jon Daly was left disappointed by his under-20s’ 2-0 loss to Elgin City on Tuesday night. Nonetheless, the Irn-Bru Cup still leaves him feeling phenomenal. Hearts Under-20s overhauled a 2-0 deficit to beat Stirling Albion in the first round before losing in Moray to a battle-hardened Elgin side.
Other Under-20 teams have flourished, with Motherwell and Aberdeen youngsters beating Edinburgh City and Formartine respectively in the first round. Celtic’s kids have been the standouts as they demolished Annan Athletic 5-1 before winning at Cowdenbeath to take their place in the third round.
This experiment may, in time, lead to colt teams competing in Scotland’s lower leagues to enhance player development. The final stage in a youngster’s progress towards first-team football is learning to steel himself and find a competitive edge beyond the SPFL Development League. The Irn-Bru Cup offers it, albeit briefly for most this year.
“I think you do need that experience. That’s why we look to get boys out on loan when we can,” said Daly. “When you go out and play games that you need to win, it’s totally different. I’m a big fan of development football but, as good as it is, it does miss that cutting edge. The result isn’t everything.
“You go to places like Borough Briggs and it’s all about the result. You can see the difference. The biggest thing between the two teams the other night was the aggression. Elgin had that streetwise attitude and aggression. They go and put their bodies in where it hurts and stick their heads on things. Our boys probably aren’t at that level to do that just yet.”
It is almost an impossible trait to coach on a training field. “You get it from experience. Myself and Andy Kirk try to pass on information from our experiences to the young players at Hearts, but you only get that from playing competitively. Coming up against first-team players who have seen it and done it is vital. That’s why I’m a big fan of the Irn-Bru Cup. It’s been great for our lads to experience it. Hopefully, next year, we get another shot at it.
“I’m definitely a fan of it for the young players. To go to Stirling Albion in the first round, go 2-0 down and win 3-2, it showed great character from the lads. It showed they have that mentality to dig in and win a game. I thought we lacked that the other night a bit. I don’t think we believed we could get back into the game once we went behind. For me, that was a bit disappointing.
“The lads will learn from it. In these games, it’s crucial you don’t give away silly goals. I thought we gave away two sloppy goals at Elgin. We’ll move forward, though. We’ve got our first development league game against Hibs coming up next week. That’s a good game to have coming up quickly.”
Much to the frustration of Daly and his young charges, the Irn-Bru Cup now opens up with Championship teams entering at the third round stage. That would’ve raised the intriguing prospect of Hearts Under-20s drawing Hibs’ senior team had the Riccarton kids progressed.
“We would’ve liked to get through to the next round, there are some big teams coming in. You obviously know what’s coming in the next round but you need to beat what’s in front of you first,” admitted Daly. “I don’t know if the lads were looking ahead like that on Tuesday, maybe taking their eye off the ball. It took us a while to get going but I was pleased with the second half. I thought we passed the ball really well.
“We just have to learn from it. If you look at Elgin, they had a nous. They had a mentality that, when they go ahead, they don’t give anything up and they see out the game.
“You look at the end of the match when they had a corner. They only sent two or three boys forward into our penalty box. Five or six of them stayed back. You have to give them credit, they didn’t want to give anything away.”
The most notable success for Hearts at Borough Briggs was goalkeeper Kelby Mason, who produced five vital saves during the match, “They created quite a few chances and I thought Kelby did really well. He made some very good saves,” said Daly. “I thought his distribution was very good too, so I was pleased with him.”
Irn-Bru doesn’t employ the phrase “Made in Scotland from girders” any more, but the Irn-Bru Cup is definitely made in Scotland for teenagers.